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Monday, Dec. 4, 2000

Turning a blind eye to Chinese proliferation


NEW DELHI -- It speaks volumes that just when the United States determined that China was engaged in clandestine missile trade with Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran, Washington announced that it was waiving a law requiring imposition of economic sanctions in such a situation. The unmistakable message the U.S. conveyed is that as long as proliferation does not directly impact on U.S. interests, it is always willing to cut a deal with Beijing.

In essence, the latest deal is just like earlier nonproliferation deals with Beijing: It is based on a combination of Chinese promises and U.S. rewards. The unchanging story since the Chinese-U.S. nuclear-cooperation agreement of 1985 has been that each time Washington discovers that China has reneged on a promise, it presents new carrots to wheedle out another Chinese promise. And every new Chinese promise is packaged by Washington as a major breakthrough.

The litter of broken Chinese assurances, however, shows that Washington has been rewarding Beijing for promises made, not promises kept. U.S. policy vividly illustrates the adage that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over while hoping for a different result."

An important consequence of that approach is that Asian security comes under pressure both ways: by the broken Chinese promises that result in the advent of new offensive systems in precarious states like Pakistan and Iran, and by the technology that the U.S. provides Beijing to win nonproliferation pledges.

Sales of U.S. technology have strengthened China's commercial competitiveness and aided its military modernization. The former, which has yielded an annual trade surplus with the U.S. of nearly $60 billion, feeds into the latter. The flow of U.S. technology, both official and illicit, has helped China to improve the reliability of its rockets and has boosted its program to build a new generation of lighter mobile missiles.

Unlike China's neighbors, the U.S. can take a more relaxed view of Beijing's technological improvements as the Chinese military remains far inferior to its U.S. counterpart and the only weapons it possesses to threaten the U.S. are 20 aging, 1950s-vintage strategic missiles of dubious reliability and range.

In contrast, China's military modernization, exemplified by the deployment of hundreds of new medium-range missiles along its frontiers in the past five years alone, only adds to the vulnerabilities of its regional rivals. For example, it only reinforces the psychologically deleterious view in Indian policymaking circles that New Delhi can do little to reverse Beijing's growing strategic ascendancy. The paralysis in India's China policy is a result of such thinking.

The U.S.-China deal can hardly commend itself to Asia. The double reward it carries for the world's largest autocracy is evident not only from China, which is fully absolved of its past misdeeds, but also from the fact that it gains space cooperation with the U.S. and will get licenses potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars to launch U.S. commercial satellites atop its rockets. Beijing will doubly benefit from the deal: It will make money from continued missile exports to Pakistan and from launching U.S. satellites.

It is illuminating why Washington pardoned the supplier but ostensibly slapped sanctions on the recipient states, Pakistan and Iran. The new sanctions were selected and imposed in a manner designed to render them inconsequential. No one has better explained this charade than the State Department, whose spokesman Richard Boucher had this to say on record: "Because of the ongoing U.S. embargo against Iran, and pre-existing sanctions against Pakistan, the new sanctions will actually have very limited economic effect." Boucher even admitted that they "duplicate other sanctions" already in force.

The U.S. was hardly issuing any licenses for export of controlled items to Pakistan's Ministry of Defense and Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission. So the new sanctions on them, even if they had not duplicated existing punitive measures, are trifling.

The sanctions on three Iranian institutions are a joke. Not only is the entire state of Iran under a stringent U.S. trade embargo, the only real promise China has kept to date is a halt to all missile sales to Tehran. According to America's own sanctions determination, China sold only missile components and materials to Iran, not complete ballistic missiles. In contrast, China has given Islamabad "complete missiles, their major subsystems and their production facilities" in addition to components and materials, reports the U.S. State Department.

China is unlikely to completely halt its missile aid to Islamabad given its repeated assertions that "Pakistan is our Israel." Missiles are at the heart of China's military force, as well as its strategy against regional rivals like India, Japan and Taiwan. As it improves their range, payload and accuracy and develops alternative delivery systems, particularly cruise missiles, it will have additional incentives to sell its older technologies to Pakistan to checkmate India and earn extra funds for its research and development program.

In any case, with North Korea serving as a handy conduit, China already has found ingenious ways to route certain missile technologies and parts to Pakistan. That allows it to show its hands are clean when it needs to, while dirtying them only for more critical transfers.

If the deal with Beijing is significant in any way, it is for what it fails to achieve. First, China has given no signal that it intends to formally join the 32-nation, U.S.-led Missile Technology Control Regime. All it has done is agreed to put in place a set of export controls "of the same sort as MTCR," although it already pledged years ago to observe the MTCR guidelines. Second, the deal hinges on Chinese assurances, with no provision for verification, as Boucher acknowledged. Third, China's 100 or so missile entities are under the Defense Ministry, but the deal is with the Foreign Ministry, which has little control over them.

In his eight years at the White House, Bill Clinton has distinguished himself for turning a blind eye to Chinese proliferation. A sanctions determination that should have come during Clinton's first term in office wasn't made until his administration entered its final weeks in office after the presidential election -- leading many Republicans to question the political propriety of the move. And the decision was revealed in a joint statement with Beijing, with the official Chinese Xinhua news agency announcing the U.S. decision 45 minutes before the U.S. State Department did!

This deal is Clinton's parting gift to Asia. The same man who berated his opponent in the 1992 presidential election for "coddling dictators from Havana to Beijing" will be best remembered in history for coddling dictators and bimbos alike.

Brahma Chellaney is a strategic-affairs expert based in New Delhi.


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