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Issue Brief


Steven Dolley
Research Director
Nuclear Control Institute

Updated: September 4, 1997


The attitude of the Peoples Republic of China toward nuclear proliferation has been a national- security concern for the United States ever since China became a nuclear-weapon state in 1964. A year prior to Chinas first nuclear explosion, the Peking Review stated that, "[s]o long as the imperialists refuse to ban nuclear weapons, the greater the number of socialist countries possessing them, the better the guarantee of world peace."1 Though China's current public position is that it does not support the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it was the next-to-last declared nuclear-weapon state to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), joining in 1992.2 China is still not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, nor is it a formal member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (though it has pledged to the United States that it will abide by MTCR guidelines).

According to a recent assessment by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), China is still not fully committed to international non-proliferation regimes:

Problems have arisen primarily in the area of nonproliferation export controls, where China has failed to adopt an effective national system and has proven reluctant to embrace completely the norms established by the multilateral regimes, i.e. the Australia Group (CBW exports), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar Agreement (conventional arms exports and related dual-use items).3

These issues are made more urgent by U.S. nuclear-industry pressure on the Clinton Administration to clear the way for expanded nuclear-technology trade with China. In order to bring into force the 1985 U.S.- China nuclear cooperation agreement, a prerequisite to such trade, the President must provide certain non- proliferation certifications to Congress. These certification requirements, enacted by Congress in the joint resolution approving but suspending implementation of the agreement,4 and further elaborated in the Tiananmen Square legislation five years later,5 were intended to ensure that U.S. nuclear exports to China will not commence until China has provided real assurances that it is not assisting and will not assist other nations, directly or indirectly, to acquire the means to make nuclear weapons.

What follows is a concise summary of nuclear-proliferation concerns associated with Chinas domestic and export programs.

China Has Not Implemented Export Controls

China promised then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher in November 1996 that it would set up an export-control system,6 and the Clinton Administration has stated that implementation of such a system will be required if U.S.-Chinese nuclear trade is to expand.7 Earlier this year, senior Administration officials expressed concern that China has failed to implement such controls. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated in April that "[w]e remain concerned ... about the adequacy of China's export control system. Difficulties have arisen, for example, over Chinese exports of arms as well as sensitive goods and technologies to Iran and Pakistan."8 Samuel Berger, assistant to the President for national security affairs, echoed these concerns in June:

... China maintains weapons supply relationships that trouble us and an inadequate system of export controls to assure that in a country as large as China, unauthorized sales do not occur. Last month, we imposed economic penalties against several Chinese companies for providing assistance to Irans chemical weapons program. And we continue to raise with China our concerns about the possible sale of missile technology to Iran and Pakistan.9

In June, it was reported that implementation of these measures faced continued resistance from the Chinese nuclear industry.10

On August 1, the Chinese cabinet reportedly approved a 22-article export control law, including a list of controlled items, but the law has apparently not been made public, and detailed information about its provisions is not available.11 As of late August, it has been reported that, despite the August 1 announcement, China has still not implemented controls for nuclear materials, components and "dual-use" items (technology and material that can be used either for peaceful purposes or weapons).12

China Has Diverted U.S. Exports to Military Use

The 1985 Congressional resolution approving the U.S.-China nuclear cooperation agreement requires, as a precondition for the agreements coming into force, that the President certify to Congress that, inter alia, "verification measures are designed to be effective in ensuring peaceful uses of U.S. exports..."13 Almost 12 years later, it is not clear whether such measures have been agreed upon.

Concerns that China might fail to keep promises not to use U.S.-origin nuclear technology for military purposes are justified by its misuse of U.S. non-nuclear exports. China has already diverted certain U.S.- origin non-nuclear dual-use" technology to military applications. In 1994, China imported U.S. machine tools for what it claimed were civilian purposes. In fact, these tools were diverted to a missile factory. Commerce Department investigators urged sanctions, but higher level officials rejected sanctions in favor of continuing a constructive-engagement approach.14

In June 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright protested Chinas illegal diversion of a Sun Microsystems supercomputer to a facility doing military research.15 A National Security Council official reported that "there were no formal military or intelligence investigations" of possible computer technology diversions by China.16

China Assists Proliferant States

A CIA report concluded that, in the second half of 1996, China was the single most important supplier of equipment and technology for weapons of mass destruction" worldwide.17 This dubious honor reflects a pattern of Chinese export misbehavior that has continued for decades. Here is NCI's compilation of some examples of Chinese assistance provided to nations of proliferation concern.18

Algeria. In 1990, when Algeria was refusing to join the NPT, China secretly began construction of a large nuclear research reactor, capable of producing significant amounts of plutonium.19 China also supplied large hot cells, which can be used to handle highly radioactive spent fuel to separate plutonium.20 Only years later, after international pressure was brought to bear on both nations, was the reactor announced publicly and placed under IAEA safeguards.

Argentina. In the early 1980s, at a time when Argentina refused to join the NPT, China supplied that nation with unsafeguarded highly enriched uranium, uranium hexafluoride, and heavy water.21 China entered into a nuclear cooperation agreement with Argentina in 1985.22

India. In the 1980s, China covertly sold India 130 to 150 tons of heavy water, enhancing India's ability to produce plutonium in CANDU reactors for its nuclear weapons program after Canada and the United States had cut off supply of heavy water to India.23

Iran. China entered into a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran in 1985.24 In September 1995, the Chinese ambassador to Iran confirmed that China was supplying uranium enrichment and other nuclear technology to Iran.25 China is Irans most important supplier of nuclear technology, exporting over $60 million worth annually, and 14 Chinese nuclear experts are reportedly working at Iranian nuclear facilities.26

According to one report, China recently completed construction of a plant to convert uranium from UF6 gas to metallic form.27 Such a uranium- conversion facility would be useful in a nuclear-weapons program. IAEA inspectors reported in early 1997 that the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center, site of the plant, is "building up at a rate not justified by Iran's declared nuclear activities."28 In July, Clinton Administration officials denied the plants existence. An ACDA official stated that "[t]hat report is not accurate," and a senior State Department official said, "[t]here is no information---negative---showing such a facility in Iran."29

China has also supplied Iran with a research reactor capable of producing plutonium and a calutron, a technology that can be used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade.30 (Calutrons enriched the uranium in the "Little Boy" bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and were at the center of Saddam Hussein's effort to develop an Iraqi nuclear bomb.)

China has contracted with Iran to construct two nuclear-power reactors near Bushehr, though it is not clear whether these plans have been put on hold.31 China also has provided Iran with nuclear-capable ballistic missiles,32 cruise missiles,33 missile components, and chemicals useful in making nerve gas.34 China has reportedly "sold Iran 400 tons of chemical agents, giving it the largest chemical weapons stockpile of any Third World country."35

Iraq. In 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the imposition of an international trade embargo, China provided Iraq with lithium hydride, a chemical compound useful in both boosted-fission and thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs, as well as ballistic missile fuel.36 China also reportedly assisted Iraq in the construction of samarium-cobalt ring magnets for uranium-enrichment centrifuges.37

North Korea. Several hundred North Korean experts have been trained in plutonium separation and other nuclear technologies in China and the Soviet Union since the 1960s.38 China may also have assisted North Korea's ballistic missile program.39

Pakistan. A CIA report concluded in July that China is Pakistans "primary source of nuclear- related equipment and technology..."40 In the early 1980s, China provided Pakistan with the design for a nuclear weapon, and probably enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one to two bombs.41 It has also assisted Pakistan in construction of an unsafeguarded plutonium production reactor at Khushab,42 and possibly a reprocessing plant.43 In 1986, China sold Pakistan tritium, an element used in the trigger of hydrogen bombs as well as to boost the yield of fission weapons.44

In 1995, China exported 5,000 ring magnets to Pakistan. Such magnets are integral components of high-speed gas centrifuges of the type used by Pakistan to enrich uranium to weapons-grade.45 In October 1996, the CIA reported that China had provided Pakistan with dual-use furnaces and diagnostic equipment.46 It remains unclear whether these transfers took place before or after China's May 11, 1996 pledge to the United States not to provide assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities.

China has provided assistance with a number of Pakistans nuclear reactors. China is constructing a safeguarded nuclear-power plant at Chasma47 and supplying it with an advanced-computer control system.48 China also supplies heavy water to the safeguarded Kanupp reactor (originally supplied by Canada), and has provided assistance in the construction of an unsafeguarded plutonium-production reactor near Khushab.49

The situation with regard to the Kanupp and Khushab reactors is particularly troubling. A shortage of heavy water is apparently the principal obstacle to start-up of the nearly completed, unsafeguarded Khushab reactor, which Pakistan has built with Chinese assistance. Recent reports indicate that China is supplying heavy water to the safeguarded Kanupp reactor at a rate to make up heavy-water losses of two to four percent a year.50 Although the Kanupp reactor had large reported losses of heavy water in its early years of operation, the facility was recently upgraded to bring the reactor into conformity with industry standards, and reduce the heavy-water loss rate to about one percent annually. Thus, China may now be supplying Pakistan with up to nearly four metric tons more heavy water per year than it needs for its safeguarded power reactor, leaving open the possibility of diversion of surplus heavy water to Khushab, which needs only five tons of heavy water to start up and 15 tons to operate at full power. These questions have yet to be resolved.

According to the CIA, China provided Pakistan with 30 ready-to-launch M-11 ballistic missiles, capable of delivering nuclear warheads, to Pakistan.51 China also reportedly helped Pakistan build a missile production factory, which will be ready to operate in 1997, and U.S. intelligence reports frequent trips by Chinese missile technicians to Pakistan.52

South Africa. In the early 1990s, when South Africa's apartheid government was not a member of the NPT and was secretly building nuclear bombs, China supplied Pretoria with 60 tons of unsafeguarded enriched uranium.53 This enriched uranium may have enabled South Africa to triple weapons-grade uranium output at the Valindaba facility.54

Syria. According to U.S. intelligence sources, China has provided ballistic missile technology to Syria,55 including the nuclear-capable M-9 missile,56 and guidance technology for M-11 missiles, in violation of the MTCR.57

End Notes

1. Peking Review, August 16, 1963, cited in statement of Senator William Proxmire to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, October 9, 1985. Back to document

2. China joined the NPT March 9, 1992; France joined the treaty on August 3, 1992. Back to document

3. ACDA, 1996 Annual Report, "Regional Arms Control: China." Back to document

4. P.L. 99-183 (December 16, 1985). Back to document

5. P.L. 101-246, Title IX, Sections 901 and 902 (February 16, 1990). Back to document

6 . "Ban on Nuke Tech to China to be Partially Lifted," Dow Jones newswire, December 10, 1996. Back to document

7. Mark Hibbs, "Move to Block China Certification Doesn't Concern Administration," Nucleonics Week, August 7, 1997, p. 11. Back to document

8 . Madeleine Albright, speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, April 15, 1997. Back to document

9 . Samuel Berger, speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, June 6, 1997. Back to document

10 . Mark Hibbs, "Chinese Industry Resists Nuclear Export Controls," Nucleonics Week, June 5, 1997, p. 3. Back to document

11. Mark Hibbs, "Move to Block China Certification," op. cit, citing an August 1 report by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua. Back to document

12 . Steven Erlanger, "China Considers U.S. Suggestions for Summit Harmony," New York Times, August 18, 1997, p. A6. Back to document

13 . Warren Donnelly, Congressional Research Service, "Implementation of the U.S.-China Agreement for Nuclear Cooperation," CRS Issue Brief, November 17, 1988, p. 3. This verification requirement applies specifically to dedicated nuclear technology exports under the terms of the cooperation agreement, rather than "dual-use" technologies with nuclear applications. Back to document

14 . Gary Milhollin, "China Cheats (What a Surprise!)," New York Times, April 24, 1997, p. A35. Back to document

15 . Robert Greenberger, "Albright Says China Broke Export Rules by Using U.S. Computer at Military Site," Wall Street Journal, July 1, 1997. p. A16. Back to document

16. Gary Samore, senior director for nonproliferation and export control, NSC, cited in Robert Greenberger, ibid. Back to document

17 . Mark Hibbs, "DOD, ACDA Want China Accord Link to Other Weapons Export Limits," Nucleonics Week, August 21, 1997, p. 2. See also Tim Weiner, "China is Top Supplier toNations Seeking Powerful, Banned Arms," New York Times, July 3, 1997, p. A10. Back to document

18. Research for this paper was assisted by the CNS computer databases compiled by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute for International Affairs. Back to document

19. Elaine Sciolino, "Algerian Reactor: A Chinese Export," New York Times, November 15, l991, p. l; Yan Kong and Tim McCarthy, "The Proliferation Risks of the PRC-Supplied Algerian Nuclear Reactor," Eye on Supply, Emerging Nuclear Suppliers Project, Monterey Institute for International Studies, #4, Spring 1991, pp. 71 -73. Back to document

20. Mark Hibbs, "Move to Block China Certification," op. cit. Back to document

21. Judith Miller, "U.S. is Holding up Peking Atom Talks," New York Times, September 19, 1982; Michael Brenner, "People's Republic of China," in International Nuclear Trade and Nonproliferation, Ed. William Potter, 1990, p. 253. Back to document

22. Daniel Shultz, "The PRC's Nuclear Cooperation Agreements," Eye on Supply, #4, Spring 1991, pp. 78- 79. Back to document

23. Judith Miller, "U.S. is Holding up Peking Atom Talks," op. cit.; Gary Milhollin and Gerard White, "A New China Syndrome: Beijing's Atomic Bazaar," Washington Post, May 12, 1991, p. C4. Back to document

24. Daniel Shultz, "The PRC's Nuclear Cooperation Agreements," Eye on Supply, #4, Spring 1991, pp. 78- 79. Back to document

25. Martin Walker, "US Fears Beijing May Be Split Over Mending Fences," Guardian, September 25, 1995. Back to document

26. Con Coughlin, "U.S. Sounds Alarm Over Iran Nuclear Threat," Sunday Telegraph (London), February 23, 1997, p. 24. Back to document

27. "EU Leaks Report on Nuclear Program," Iran Brief, July 3, 1997, p. 5. Back to document

28. Mark Hibbs, "Iran Agrees to Monitoring Under 93+2, Part I Safeguards," NuclearFuel, January 13, 1997, pa 3. Back to document

29. Mark Hibbs & Michael Knapik, "U.S. Aims for China Certification Timed with Fall Visit by Jiang," NuclearFuel, July 28, 1997, p. 3. Back to document

30. Marie Colvin, "Secret Iranian Plans for a Nuclear Bomb," Sunday Times (London), July 28, 1991; Russell Watson, "Merchants of Death," Newsweek, November 18, 1991, p. 38. Back to document

31. In August, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing, stated that "I was told that China ... reached an important decision not to provide the means for building an atomic reactor which Iran asked China to supply." "Netanyahu Says Received China Assurances on Iran," Reuters wire story, August 24, 1997. However, the Chinese Government refused to confirm or comment on this statement. "China Silent on Whether Iran Nuclear Sale Shelved," Reuters wire story, August 26, 1997. Chinese ambiguity on its commitment to the Iran reactor project has continued for some time. "China/lran: Reactor Plans Shelved-Again?," Nucleonics Week, January 11, 1996, p. 9. Back to document

32. Representative Tom Lantos, "Chinese Ballistic Missile Sales," Statement before the Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations, and Human Rights, House Foreign Affairs Committee, May 20, 1993, p. 4. Back to document

33. Robert Einhorn, deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on International Security, reported in "State Dept. Revises Report on China's Arms Sales to Iran," Washington Times, April 15, 1997, p. A3. Back to document

34. Robert Einhorn, ibid.; Bill Gertz, "China Sold Iran Missile Technology," Washington Times, November 21, 1996, p. At. Back to document

35. Mark Yost, "China's Deadly Trade in the Mideast," Wall Street Journal, December 4, 1996, p. A18, citing "U.S. Navy sources." Back to document

36. Tim Kelsey, "Chinese Arms Dealers Flaunt U.N. Embargo-China Ships Vital Nuclear Cargo to Iraq," London Sunday Independent, September 30, 1990, reprinted in Congressional Record, October 18, 1990, p. H10531. Back to document

37. "Iraq and the Bomb," MidEast Markets, December 11, 1989, p. 130. Back to document

38. Mark Hibbs, "No U.S. Agency Consensus on DPRK Nuclear Progress," Nucleonics Week, January 6, 1994, p. 10. Back to document

39. Spector et al., p. 49. Back to document

40. Tim Weiner, "China is Top Supplier," op. cit. Back to document

41. Leslie Gelb, "Pakistan Link Perils U.S.-China Nuclear Pact," New York Times, June 22, 1984, p. Al; Leonard Spector et al., Tracking Nuclear Proliferation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1995, p. 49. Back to document

42. Ibid Back to document

43 . 43 Bill Gertz, "China Aids Pakistani Plutonium Plant," Washington Times, April 3, 1996, p. A4. Back to document

44. Milhollin and White, p. C4. Back to document

45. Tim Weiner, "Atom Arms Parts Sold to Pakistan by China, U.S. Says," New York Times, February 8, 1996, p. Al. Back to document

46. Mark Hibbs, "U.S.-China Cooperation Closer as China Scales Back Pakistan Aid," Nucleonics Week, October 17, 1996, p. 11. Back to document

47. Spector et al., p. 97. The plant supposedly will be subject to IAEA inspections. Back to document

48. "Pakistan to get Chinese Computer," Wall Street Journal, August 22, 1997, p. A10. Back to document

49. Mark Hibbs, "China May Continue D20 Reactor Exports to Pakistan After U.S. Certification," NuclearFuel, August 11, 1997, p. 1. Back to document

50. Ibid Back to document

51. "India Says China has sent Missiles to Pakistan," Reuters wire story, August 7, 1997. See also Jeffrey Smith and David Ottaway, "Spy Photos Suggest China Missile Trade," Washinaton Post, July 3, 1995, p. Al. Back to document

52. Gary Milhollin, "China Cheats," op. cit. Back to document

53. Leonard Spector, Nuclear Ambitions, 1990, p. 274. Back to document

54. Michael Brenner, "The People's Republic of China," op. cit., p. 253. Back to document

55. Bill Gertz, "China Sold Iran Missile Technology," Washington Times, November 21, 1996, p. Al; Spector et al., p. 49. Back to document

56. Milhollin and White, p. C4; Lantos, p. 5. Back to document

57. Mark Yost, "China's Deadly Trade," op. cit. Back to document

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