Tuesday, April 11, 2006

China's Nuclear Diplomacy

Gordon G. Chang, The Wall Street Journal:
As Mao Zedong once said, "without the bomb people just won't listen to you." Since then, China's attitudes toward nuclear proliferation have matured. But the transformation isn't yet complete. With China's backing, Iran's nuclear program has advanced, and it's still unclear what the mainland will do as pressure on Tehran intensifies. Given the threat, it's time for America and the West to step up the pressure on China -- both privately and publicly -- to prove that its "peaceful rise" really will be peaceful. It's time for China to drop its support of Iran. READ MORE

Such a change in national policy won't be easy for the Chinese, but it's been accomplished before without significant international pressure. In the 1950s, Beijing applied its own brand of Marxist analysis to the issue of nuclear proliferation. Nukes in the hands of socialists, the Party argued, advanced world peace -- so all communist states should have them. Other "peace-loving countries" -- the non-aligned states -- could possess them too. Beijing's logic was straightforward: Nuclear weapons gave weaker nations the means to deter the two superpowers, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, and granted them a voice in world affairs.

Once the Chinese detonated their first atomic device in 1964, however, their outlook changed. By 1983, their pro-proliferation rhetoric was a thing of the past. China joined the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, in 1984 and signed nuclear-proliferation agreements at a fast clip from 1992 to 1998. Since then, Beijing has enacted comprehensive nuclear export-control legislation and established stringent licensing for nuclear material, dual-use items and related technology.

China, the one nation that given its history might have dispersed nuclear weapons technology indiscriminately, has not done so. Yet the issue is not whether Beijing's policies are moving in the right direction -- it is whether they are progressing fast enough. The existing American-led international system could completely fail if hostile and unstable regimes obtain atomic weapons. Unfortunately, that kind of rapid nuclearization may soon occur. In 2004, the IAEA estimated that at least 40 nations could build a bomb within a few years' time. Not all of these countries would be a threat to global order -- but many of them would.

China's role in the current Iranian crisis is particularly unsettling. Alongside Russia, Beijing has insisted on "dialogue" rather than economic sanctions. This attitude is driven by China's extensive oil exploration and gas interests in Iran.

The West should've seen this coming. The IAEA identified China as one of the sources for enrichment equipment used in Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program. As noted in these pages, Chinese weapons scientists were working in Iran as late as the end of 2003. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a dissident group, in 2004 China sent Iran beryllium, which can be used to trigger a nuclear weapon. And as late as last year, various sources, including the NCRI and some inside the American intelligence community, reported that China sold either centrifuges or centrifuge parts to Iran.

China's assistance to Iran is a violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It also violates Beijing's Oct. 1997 pledge to America that it would not engage in any new nuclear cooperation with Iran and would expedite the completion of two small projects there. "Chinese entities remain involved with the nuclear and missile efforts in Iran," confirmed Peter Rodman, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, in written testimony to a congressional commission last year.

These reports suggest that China, despite passionate and repeated denials, is still playing "the proliferation card" to secure access to Iranian energy. China's activities also raise broader questions about Beijing's adherence to international norms to prevent the dispersal of nuclear technologies. What can Washington do to encourage the Chinese to make the right choice about their future?

For the past decade, U.S. administrations have typically used a light touch that accomplished little. They have, for instance, slapped a series of minor sanctions on China's state-owned enterprises for particularly egregious transfers of missile and WMD technology to Iran. If anything, these mild rebukes, even though administered publicly, have shown Beijing that America is not serious about stopping Chinese proliferation. Some critics argue that, whatever Washington does, it holds little sway over Beijing. The Chinese, they contend, will never support sanctions or other coercive measures against Iran that run counter to their own national interests.

When the U.S. is resolute, however, Washington gets results. Consider U.S. measures in the early 1990s, as regards North Korean nuclear proliferation. In 1994, Washington privately told Beijing that its support of Pyongyang would isolate China internationally. Furthermore, Washington threatened to put the Chinese in the unenviable position of having to take a clear stand in support of Pyongyang in public. President Clinton also offered substantial trade concessions -- an unprincipled bribe, but an effective one. The Chinese complied, employing both backroom diplomacy and public pressure on Pyongyang, suggesting China might adhere to any embargo imposed on North Korea and stop food and oil supplies. Pyongyang immediately softened its position on starting talks over its plutonium production. This type of effective diplomacy was employed again by the current U.S. administration in 2003, when, after intense bargaining with China, Beijing cut off the flow of oil to North Korea for three days. Again, Pyongyang yielded, agreeing to sit down for multilateral talks shortly thereafter.

The North Korean example shows that China can become a constructive force if America acts to make it one. Washington may have to step up its public rhetoric with Beijing or employ a strong mix of sticks and carrots, but in any event America needs to act. The Chinese have yet to make the right choice in the showdown with Iran.

Mr. Chang is the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World" (Random House, 2006).