The following is adapted from Rodney W. Jones' chapter on China in Carnegie Endowment's Tracking Nuclear Proliferation, 1998.
During the years of isolation from the West, China’s posture rhetorically favored nuclear weapons proliferation, particularly in the Third World, as a rallying point for anti-imperialism. Through the 1970s, China’s policy was not to oppose nuclear proliferation, which it still saw as limiting U.S. and Soviet power. After China began to open to the West in the 1970s, its rhetorical position gradually shifted to one opposing nuclear proliferation, explicitly so after 1983.
China’s nuclear and arms trade practices did not, however, conform to international non-proliferation regime standards, and major efforts over two decades were required to persuade China to bring its nuclear trade practices into closer alignment with the policies of the other nuclear supplier states. There is still a gap that needs to be closed.
To understand how far China has come on the non-proliferation path, two points should be made clear: China joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984, but it did not join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) until 1992. During this period, the non-proliferation regime, under U.S. urging, was itself raising the bar with stiffer export control requirements, making the standards applied to China today higher than those most Western states themselves lived by during the Cold War. That said, the higher standards are now indispensable for regime effectiveness, and the efforts to win full Chinese compliance must continue.
Encouraging Chinese acceptance of global non-proliferation norms has been a long-term process, concurrent with the larger effort to normalize relations with Beijing. During the Cold War, the approach toward China was still heavily conditioned by other Western instruments of control, such as the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), designed to keep state of the art military technologies out of the hands of communist adversaries.
Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s overhaul of technology transfer controls has been complicated by globalization and free trade principles. Related U.S. non-proliferation efforts have had to cope with not only the official behavior of the Chinese government but also the hidden activities of autonomous Chinese manufacturing and trading entities that have been encouraged to sell goods and services for profit in order to sustain themselves.
China made notable strides to join formal arms control regimes in the 1990s—beginning with its accession to the NPT in 1992, its signature in 1993 and ratification in 1997 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and its cessation of nuclear weapon explosive testing and signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in September, 1996. China has supported the multilateral negotiations on a fissile-material production cutoff convention. China also acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984. Moreover, China has gradually clarified and upgraded the commitments it makes through export controls to nuclear and missile non-proliferation objectives. These nuclear export control clarifications and practical improvements are worthy of note, as are the areas of continued divergence.
China is still on a learning curve, and endemic problems of a political, cultural, and organizational nature exist in China’s decision-making and export control apparatus. There may be, as the old adage goes, "more than a slip between the cup and the lip." Thus, continued vigilance and diplomatic interchange with China will certainly be necessary on nuclear matters.
The missile, chemical and biological areas will also require diligent attention. Up to 1994, China made progress on MTCR requirements. But it is still not clear that its professed restraint applies, as the MTCR requires, to missile components and technology—nor, indeed, that the restraint applies to more than complete "ground-to-ground" missiles. Compliance in this area, which is not defined by a treaty, is harder to nail down with standards that China can accept politically—and also entails more scope for ambiguities. The chemical area is defined by treaty, provides for declarations, and lists restricted items, but it covers a very large industrial domain.
Click here for an expanded timeline of China's proliferation activities.
China secretly agrees to provide Algeria with a research reactor
China joins the IAEA
China supplies Saudi Arabia with medium-range ballistic missiles
China and Iran sign military technology transfer agreement
Discovery of Algerian reactor; U.S. applies MTCR Category II sanctions on China and Pakistan for missile technology transfers
Algeria agrees to place reactor under IAEA safeguards; China joins NPT; to end sanctions, China agrees to follow MTCR "guidelines"
U.S. again applies MTCR Category II sanctions on China and Pakistan
To end sanctions, China agrees not to transfer any missiles inherently capable of delivering 500kg payload to at least 300km
China suspends sale of two 300 Mwe reactors to Iran
U.S. stops accepting Export-Import Bank loan applications from China after disclosure of ring magnet sale to Pakistan; U.S. drops sanctions after China agrees to improve export controls and limit assistance to safeguarded nuclear facilities; China signs CTBT
China upgrades its nuclear export control procedures; China secretly agrees to halt all aid to Iranian nuclear programs
China agrees to halt aid to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program; allegations of nuclear espionage
2000. Technology transfers continue but at relatively restrained pace