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Chinese Realpolitik and the Proliferation Security Initiative
William Hawkins
2/18/2005

Nothing better demonstrates La Rochefoucauld's maxim that "hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue" than the Joint Declaration on Non-proliferation and Arms Control issued at the China-European Union Summit held in The Hague, Holland, on December 9, 2004. The declaration was filled with idealistic sentiments such as "the fundamental purpose of non-proliferation is to maintain international and regional peace, security and stability, which is in the interests of China and the EU as well as the entire human kind." Though weapons of mass destruction were the focus of the declaration, the scope was widened with a call "to strengthen controls over exports of conventional weapons." But against these words is a record of contrary behavior that risks increased violence in world affairs.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao used the summit to lobby the EU to lift its arms embargo on weapons sales to Beijing. The Joint Statement issued at the close of the summit included in point seven, "The EU side confirmed its political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo. The Chinese side welcomed the positive signal, and considered it beneficial to the sound development of the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and the EU." German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac have renewed their calls to lift the arms embargo against China even as the Bush Administration has been lobbying hard in support of the ban. The American effort appeared doomed, however, when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw voiced his support for lifting the ban on January 12, as he was preparing to visit Beijing. Javier Solana, the high representative for EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, told France's Europe 1 Radio that the embargo might be removed in the first six months of 2005.

The Chinese statement claims that supplying Beijing with modern arms and military technology "would not harm the interests of any other third party." Such words provide little comfort to Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, or the United States whose interests may be challenged by the growing ambitions of China.

In their joint declaration, China praises the EU for its negotiations to end Iran's nuclear weapons program and the EU praises China's diplomatic effort to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Yet, Beijing's role in Iran has been to help Tehran resist international pressure. The main leverage the EU and the U.S. have on Iran is economic. The U.S. has sanctions against any entity that helps Iran develop its oil and natural gas industry so that increased energy exports will not fund military programs. The EU has also threatened sanctions if talks fail. At the end of October, however, Beijing and Tehran signed a preliminary accord worth $70 billion to $100 billion by which China will purchase Iranian oil and gas and help develop Iran's Yadavaran oil field. Earlier, China agreed to buy $20 billion of natural gas from Iran. Tehran's Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has been quoted as saying "We would like to give preference to exports to China." In return, China has become a major exporter of manufactured goods to Iran.

At the recent international air show held in Zhuhai, China (November 1-6), a number of tactical missiles co-developed by Iran and China were displayed. Chinese companies have provided components and technology for Iran's Shihab-3 and -4 ballistic missile programs, provoking U.S. sanctions on some 28 Chinese firms.

During a recent visit to Tehran, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing signaled that Beijing did not want the Iranian nuclear issue to go to the United Nations. When Seyed Hossein Mussavian, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited Beijing, he said that China wants the matter to stay within the IAEA, an organization without the power to impose sanctions and with a very weak record on stopping proliferation.

Beijing has also opposed the Proliferation Security Initiative, an international coalition created by the United States and including Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Singapore, Norway, Canada and the United Kingdom. The PSI seeks to improve the sharing of intelligence regarding the spread of weapons of mass destruction, shut down of illicit laboratories, and freeze of the finances of arms dealers. It has also conducted naval exercises to interdict shipments of WMDs and their delivery systems at sea.

On October 26, Japan hosted the "Team Samurai 2004" PSI exercise involving its armed forces in cooperation with warships from the United States, Australia, and France. The simulated interdiction of a WMD shipment was carried out in the Pacific near Tokyo Bay. The Chinese nuclear submarine which set off an international incident when it was detected in Japanese territorial waters on November 9th is thought to have monitored the PSI naval maneuvers.

The United States sought UN endorsement of the PSI by introducing Security Council Resolution 1540 in late 2003. The resolution was adopted unanimously by the UNSC on April, 28, 2004, but in a modified version that avoided giving any explicit support to the PSI. The operative sections refer to non-state actors and call on states to monitor and enforce domestic controls aimed at individuals and industry, thus treating proliferation as a matter of illicit private activity rather than state policy, which avoids laying any foundation for the imposition of nation-wide sanctions.

Whenever Resolution 1540 mentions "international cooperation" it is quick to hem such actions in by stating that any such cooperation must be "in accordance with their national legal authorities and legislation and consistent with international law." Cooperation is not to be allowed to grow into a coalition that can act unilaterally. The resolution studiously avoids making any new international law.

Critics of the PSI argue that the declared intent of PSI members to stop, search and seize ships and cargoes belonging to non-PSI "state or non-state actors" in "areas beyond the territorial seas of any other state" is a violation of international law guaranteeing freedom of the seas. Article 23 of the UN Law of the Sea Convention even allows "ships carrying nuclear or other inherently dangerous or noxious substances" the right of innocent passage through territorial seas as long as they "carry documents and observe special precautionary measures established for such ships by international agreements." Their right to operate on the high seas is uncontested.

The original intent of Washington to use the UN to change international law and criminalize behavior involving WMD proliferation was frustrated by Beijing. China had threatened to veto any resolution that endorsed the PSI. China has the world's third largest merchant fleet with over 2,000 ships, and will not allow them to be inspected for suspected arms shipments. Resolution 1540 is structured under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would require Security Council approval for enforcement action action which China could veto.

The day before the UNSC vote on the resolution, John R. Bolton, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, acknowledged that passage of 1540 would not be enough to fulfill American objectives. Speaking to a UN conference on the "crisis of NPT noncompliance," Bolton said, "Once it [1540] is passed, we are prepared to assist other governments in drafting and enforcing the new laws that will help stem WMD proliferation. But verification is not enough. The most air-tight verification regime in the world is worthless if confirmed violations are ignored." And despite some cooperation in regards to North Korea, he added, "China has remained a country of proliferation concern." Andrew K. Semmel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Nonproliferation, told the Asia-Pacific Nuclear Safeguards and Security Conference in Sydney, Australia on November 8, 2004 only that "the PSI and 1540 are complementary."

It is no wonder then that the joint China-EU arms control declaration establishes Resolution 1540 as the basis for their interpretation of international law. Any non-proliferation measure China endorses is guaranteed to be useless as a document of effective and enforceable international law. The joint declaration repeats the language of 1540 "that prevention of proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons should not hamper international cooperation in materials, equipment and technology for peaceful purposes" which leave the door open for trade in "dual use" items. And like 1540, the China-EU declaration pertains to non-state actors and illicit private ventures, not state policy.

In regards to North Korea, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue has said that "mistrust between the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the sticking point of the suspended six-party talks on the Korean Peninsular nuclear issue." Chinese leaders have called for a "diplomatic solution" that would keep off the table any economic sanctions or military threats (other than Pyongyang's periodic declarations of war). When North Korean parliamentary head Kim Yong Nam visited Beijing in October, President Hu Jintao vowed to "enhance bilateral cooperation and coordination in regional and international affairs" with North Korea, which has long been an ally. The most important shared interest of Beijing and Pyongyang is the survival of the latter's regime. A small nuclear capability that could blackmail Japan, South Korea and the United States into giving Pyongyang a security guarantee and economic aid is as much an objective of China as North Korea.

The 17th century that produced La Rochefoucauld's cynicism was a time of intense Great Power rivalry and realpolitik. The 21st century may be little different. Beijing's diplomacy is not meant to "maintain international and regional peace, security and stability" but to advance its own strategic interests which are at odds with those of the United States.

William R. Hawkins is Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief.

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