Search for Common Ground: Breaking the Sino-U.S. Non-Proliferation Stalemate

By Gill, Bates; Stephenson, Matthew | Arms Control Today, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Search for Common Ground: Breaking the Sino-U.S. Non-Proliferation Stalemate


Gill, Bates, Stephenson, Matthew, Arms Control Today


In late August 1996, news reports publicly revealed what intelligence analysts and concerned observers in the United States had known for more than a year: China, in apparent violation of its bilateral commitments with the United States regarding the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), was providing technologies, blueprints and equipment to assist in the construction of an M-11 missile factory in Pakistan. Two weeks earlier China had condemned the U.S. plan to consider selling the Avenger anti-aircraft missile system to Taiwan. With other recent Sino-U.S. proliferation problems fresh in mind (such as the Chinese sale of ring magnets to Pakistan which came to light in March 1996), and the likelihood of more difficulties on the horizon, the two sides are once again poised for another round of recriminations.

Although the two sides have taken steps to improve relations, especially over the spring and summer of 1996, serious differences between Washington and Beijing remain unresolved, particularly in the area of non-proliferation concerns. These issues are likely to be particularly troublesome for Sino-U.S. relations in coming years. But more importantly, as these disputes concern two of the world's great powers and major exporters of weapons and weapons-related technology, the management of their differences will have significant implications for the development and success of international arms control and non-proliferation regimes.

In working toward this end, the two sides will need to first iron out and implement certain bilateral cooperative measures and accords on arms control and nonproliferation. Success at that level would provide the foundation from which to build China's more active and effective inclusion in multilateral arms control and non-proliferation regimes, such as the prospective fissile materials cutoff or a "START III," as well as the Wassenaar Arrangement, the MTCR, or Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). But to reach this long-term outcome first requires an understanding of the background and sources of contention over proliferation and arms control issues between Washington and Beijing.

A History of Confrontation

The history of Sino-U.S. disputes on the issue of military technology exports has been characterized by confrontation and a mutual lack of sufficient attention to the security interests and domestic constraints of the other side. Both governments will seek to enforce what they see as binding international commitments, but the confrontational and reactive nature of SinoU.S. interactions on this issue and the mutual suspicions that have been built up have become an impediment to more substantial progress in finding common ground.

Washington and Beijing have reached certain bilateral agreements intended to constrain each country's military technology export policies. The United States agreed in the August 17, 1982 Sino-U.S. communique, "that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in quantitative or qualitative terms, the level of those supplied" since the establishment of formal U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, and that, "it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan."1 Beijing pledged to the United States in both 1992 and 1994 to abide by the parameters of the MTCR, the international regime designed to stem the spread of ballistic missiles and related technology. In addition, China acceded to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and its attendant export restrictions, in 1992.

Nevertheless, both governments often accuse the other of violating its pledges. The Chinese transfer of M-11 missile components and nuclear-related technology to Pakistan in the early to mid-1990s and the U.S. decision in 1992 to sell 150 F-16 fighters to Taiwan are two prominent examples. In addition, other sales arguably outside the scope of existing agreements generate further controversy Thus, formal commitments, while potentially helpful, have not prevented acrimonious disputes over military technology transfers. …

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