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China and Arms: Worry Lingers

October 06, 1994

China has assured the United States--yet again--that it's ready to commit itself to efforts to control the spread of missile technology. In exchange, the Clinton Administration will lift the trade sanctions it imposed on China 14 months ago, making it possible for Beijing to buy from American companies a number of communications and other satellites worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Administration insists, as a senior official put it, that "this is not an economic decision" but rather a "non-proliferation decision." Fair enough. The question now is whether China can be counted on to hold up its end of the deal.

The question has to be asked because of what has gone before. In 1991 China promised Washington that it would abide by the terms of what's called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), under which technologically advanced countries have agreed to try to limit the spread of missiles, notably those that could deliver nuclear weapons. In August, 1993, however, the Clinton Administration announced it had "unambiguous evidence" that China had in fact delivered technology for its surface-to-surface M-11 missile to Pakistan, a country that for many years has pursued a nuclear weapons program. The trade sanctions followed.

The MTCR covers missiles with a range of at least 186 miles and able to carry warheads of up to 1,100 pounds. Relatively cheap and easily transportable, these could become poor countries' strategic delivery systems.

The new agreement with China, while a step toward strengthening non-proliferation, falls short of completeness. Beijing still hasn't committed itself to adhering fully to the MTCR, as Moscow recently said Russia would. It has only agreed to continue talks with the United States to resolve the two countries' differences over missile exports.

That leaves an area of ambiguity that China, as it has in the past, could exploit to its advantage. All this provides a powerful incentive for the United States--and other concerned countries--to continue trying to persuade Beijing to keep tight controls over its technology exports, especially to countries that pose a threat to their neighbors. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is inherently destabilizing. The major powers, and China is one of them, must be leaders in working to head off such threats.

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