China's Non-Proliferation Policy and Practices

von Pan Zhenqiang
Online Info-Dienst Ausgabe 1/2004


On December 3 2003, China issued a White Paper entitled "China's Non-Proliferation Policy and Practices", outlining its non-proliferation position and consistent efforts it has made both internationally and domestically to prevent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) falling into wrong hands. This is the first ever official document that China has released to explains its policy and practices in this field.

China's basic position on non-proliferation and its practices

The White Paper reiterated China's basic stand on non-proliferation. The main points are as follows:

  • China stands for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of all kinds of WMD, including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and opposing the proliferation of such weapons and their means of delivery. China itself does not support, encourage or assist any country to develop WMD and their means of delivery.

  • China maintains that the fundamental purpose of non-proliferation is to safeguard and promote international and regional peace and security. All measures to this end should be conducive to attaining this goal. On the other hand, to pursue the universal improvement of international relations, to promote the demoralization of such relations and to accelerate fair and rational settlement of the security issues of regions concerned will help international non-proliferation efforts to proceed in a smooth manner. It is based on this understanding, China stands for the attainment of the non-proliferation goal through peaceful means.

  • China holds that a universal participation of the international community is essential for progress in non-proliferation. It is highly important to ensure a fair, rational and non-discriminatory non-proliferation regime.

  • China stresses that unilateral and double standards must be abandoned.

  • China hopes that great importance should be attached and full play given to the role of the United Nations.

  • China also believes that given the dual-use nature of many of the materials, equipment and technologies involved in the nuclear, biological, chemical and aerospace fields, it is important that all countries, in the course of implementing their non-proliferation policies, strike a proper balance between non-proliferation and international cooperation for peaceful use of the relevant high technologies. Thus while it is necessary to guarantee the rights of all countries, especially the developing nations, to utilize and share dual-use scientific and technological achievements and products for peaceful purposes subject to full compliance with the non-proliferation goal, it is also necessary to prevent any country from engaging in proliferation under the pretext of peaceful utilization.

The White Paper points out that in accordance with the above basic stance on non-proliferation, China has been over the years actively participating in international non-proliferation efforts, particularly focusing on the construction and development of the multilateral non-proliferation regime. The major thrust of China's efforts is to bring its legal system, administration mechanisms and behavior in line with the established international law and practices so that China becomes a fully responsible member of the international community. China has now signed all international treaties related to non-proliferation, and joined most of the relevant international organizations.

In the nuclear field, China joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984, voluntarily placing its civilian nuclear facilities under its safeguards, and has since become a faithful partner in the work of IAEA. In 1998, China signed the Protocol Additional to the Agreement between China and IAEA for the Application of Safeguards in China. China formally completed the domestic legal procedures necessary for the entry into force of the Additional Protocol, thus becoming the first nuclear weapon state to complete the relevant procedures. It supported the IAEA’s contribution to the prevention of potential nuclear terrorist activities.

China took an active part in the negotiations of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the conference on Disarmament in Geneva and made important contributions to the conclusion of the treaty. It was also among the first countries to sign CTBT in 1996. In 1997, China became a member of the Zangger Committee.

China has energetically backed up countries concerned in their efforts to establish nuclear weapon free zones. It has signed and ratified the protocols to such treaties in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco), South Pacific (Treaty of Rarotonga), and Africa (Treaty of Pelindaba). It has also expressly committed itself to signing the protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Bangkok), and supported the initiative for the establishment of a Central Asian nuclear weapon free region.

In the biological field, China has strictly observed its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) since its accession in 1984. As from 1988, it has, on annual basis, submitted to the UN the declaration data of the confidence-building measures for the BWC in accordance with the decision of its Review Conference. China has also enthusiastically contributed to the international efforts aimed at enhancing the BWC effectiveness, and actively participated in the negotiations on the protocol to the BWC and in international affairs related to the BWC.

In the chemical field, China made a positive contribution to the negotiation and conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It signed the Convention in 1993 and deposited its instrument of ratification in 1997. Since the CWC came into force, China has stood firmly by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW) in carrying out its work, and earnestly fulfilled its obligations under the CWC.

In the Missile field, China supports the international community in its efforts to prevent the proliferation of missiles and related technologies and materials, and adopts a positive and open attitude toward all international proposals for strengthening the missile non-proliferation mechanism It has constructively participated in the work of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Missiles, as well as the international discussions on the draft of the International Code of conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation and the proposal of a Global Control System.

In the meantime, China is well aware that effective control of materials, equipment and technologies that could be used in the development and production of WMD and their means of delivery is an important aspect in a country's implementation of its international non-proliferation obligation. Thus China has adopted rigorous measures both for the domestic control of sensitive items and technologies and for their export control, and has kept making improvements in light of the changing situation.

The highlight of China's effort in this regard is the change of its non-proliferation export control pattern from an administrative control to a law-based control. This is no easy task. For a fairly long time in the past, China practiced a planned economy, whereby the state relied mainly on administrative measures for import and export control. This proved to be effective for implementing the non-proliferation policy under the then prevailing historical conditions. But with the deepening of China's reform and opening-up, and especially following the country's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), tremendous changes have taken place in the environments of China's domestic economy and foreign trade. The old method of relying on the administrative authority to exercise control of illegal exports has become increasingly insufficient. It is against this backdrop that the Chinese Government has in recent years made great efforts to strengthen the work of building the legal system to bolster non-proliferation on the principle of rule of law to ensure the effective enforcement of its non-proliferation policy. It has now formulated and enforced a number of laws and regulations, which form a complete system for the export control of nuclear, biological, chemical, missile and other sensitive items and technologies, and all military products, and provide a full legal basis and mechanism guarantee for the better attainment of the non-proliferation goal. This export control regime embraces many practices including establishing the export registration system, licensing system, end-user and end-use certification, list control method, the principle of non-proliferation-oriented examination and approval, and the principle of "catch-all" in issuing export license, and strict penalty measures, etc.

Thanks to the steady improvement and development of its laws and regulations on non-proliferation, which have provided a solid legal basis and strong guarantee for the Chinese Government to exercise effective control of exports of all the items that may be used for proliferation of WMD. At the same time, China is aware that while it should spare no efforts to continue to implement the non-proliferation policy, these efforts should proceed in a systematic way and advance step by step. China pledges to continue to keep in touch and hold consultations with other countries on non-proliferation issues, and is willing to strengthen its exchange and cooperation with all sides in the fields related to non-proliferation export control to keep improving their respective non-proliferation export control systems (1).

Motivations behind China's expanded non-proliferation efforts

Many Western media and specialists greeted China's White Paper with a speculation that as it had come up just days before its Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Washington, Beijing might want to use the document to "defuse the expected U.S. criticism" on its non-proliferation policy. As one American specialist put it: "China's record on nuclear transfers, although it has improved, continues to worry the United States in several areas including links to Iran. The white paper is a pre-emptive strike against U.S. criticism that China is not doing enough to control nuclear exports"(2).

This suggestion makes certain sense as China evidently also regards non-proliferation as one of the areas in which the two countries have both common ground and differences. It is understandable for Beijing to offer greater transparency and hope to achieve a better understanding on this issue before Wen's talks with his American counterparts.

But it would be short-sighted if one thinks China's effort merely defensive, aiming only to cater to the American concerns. In the perspective of many Chinese specialists, the significance of the White Paper lies first of all in a clear signal China wishes to send out to the world that non-proliferation is going to be an integral part of China's overall foreign policy. As the White Paper stressed: "The purpose of China's foreign policy, is to help safeguard world peace and promote common development". A developing China needs both an international and a peripheral environment of long term peace and stability. The proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery benefits neither world peace and stability nor China's won security."(3) China's effort to prevent the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery is not doing anybody's favor. It is conducive to China's own security interests. This new emphasis of focus will have its impact on the future behavior of China at the international arena that is, more open-minded, greater transparency, and stronger interest in integrating itself into the international community.

It seems that the White Paper is also a clear indication that China wishes to be more proactive in promoting the strengthening of the world and regional non-proliferation regimes by advocating China's approach to the issue. It not only outlines detailed measures in its efforts to honor its responsibility on non-proliferation. More importantly, China evidently makes great effort in the White Paper to highlight its philosophical doctrine which underscores China's non-proliferation policy and practices. The White Paper concludes with a meaningful paragraph to summarize its attitude towards the non-proliferation issue:

"Confronted with the complicated and changeable international security situation, China stands for the fostering of a new security concept of seeking security through cooperation, dialogue, mutual trust and development. Non-proliferation is an important link in the preservation of international and regional peace and security in the new century. China will join the members of the international community who love peace and stability in making contributions to accelerating the development and improvement of the international non-proliferation mechanism and to promoting would peace, stability and development through unremitting international efforts and cooperation and by persisting in setting the issue of proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery through peaceful means"(4).

China's determination to contribute more actively to the world effort to non-proliferation in such a spirit found its expression particularly in its recent critical role in the defining of peaceful solution of the nuclear crisis in North Korea although the White Paper said little on the issue. The crisis erupted against a background of deep-rooted suspicion and long-accumulated hostility between the United States and the DPRK in October 2002. Pyongyang acquiesced that it had carried out a clandestine nuclear program and indeed declared that it had acquired nuclear bombs and would keep such an option unless the United States dropped its hostile policy and provided security assurance to it while Washington declared it may use whatever means to force the DPRK to reverse its course and give up the nuclear option completely and irreversibly before meeting Pyongyang's concerns. As either of the two sides insisted on the terms of a resolution absolute unacceptable to the other, the crisis quickly escalated to such a tension that threatened even a military conflict. It was thanks to China's coming up and playing the mediation role at the critical point of time that the crisis was brought to a halt. Under the auspice of China, trilateral party talks, which included the DPRK, the U.S. and China were held to explore a resolution of the issue in Beijing in April 2003. In August, the first round of six-party talks was held in Beijing, expanding the participants to include South Korea, Japan and Russia to further reflect on the issue. Owin g to the complexity of the nuclear crisis, its resolution may need many rounds of such talks. But the six-party talks have provided an important and timely venue for the peaceful solution of the proliferation issue. Moreover, all the participants in the first round of the talks reached consensus on a number of principles which would be extremely valuable to serve as guidelines for the eventual resolution. According to the concluding remarks of the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi, these agreements achieved were:

  • to resolve the nuclear issue through peaceful means and dialogue. The stability and peace should be maintained to achieve lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula;

  • while a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula should be realized, the security concerns of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea should also be taken into consideration;

  • to explore an overall plan to resolve the nuclear issue in a just and reasonable manner and in a simultaneous and incremental way;

  • in the process of negotiations any action or word that may aggravate the situation should be avoided;

  • dialogue should continue to establish trust, reduce differences and broaden common ground;

  • the six-party talks should continue and the specific date and venue should be decided through diplomatic channels as soon as possible (5).

Obviously, the above principles are precisely those principles embraced by China as specified in its White Paper. Guided by these consensused principles, intense preparations have now been made among the various parties for the second round of the six-party talks in the recent future. And as long as the parties concerned persist in the seeking of a resolution in a peaceful manner based on mutual compromise and equality, there is a ray of hope of its eventual success.

China's non-proliferation policy and the Sino-U.S. relations

China's White Paper has so far received worldwide welcome as a positive contribution to the world non-proliferation efforts. However, as non-proliferation has become the primary focus of the U.S. policy, and the Bush administration likes to use the position on this issue by various countries as the main criterion to gauge its friends and foes, non-proliferation has become one of the central factors in the future China-U.S. constructive partnership. In other words, the success or failure in the coordination and cooperation in this field could have significant bearing on the evolution of the overall relations between the two countries as well as the strength of the world non-proliferation regime. Likewise, China's future non-proliferation policy and practices will also largely be affected by its ability to coordinate with the United States.

The good news is that both countries are increasingly aware of an overlapping interest in ensuring the strengthening of the international non-proliferation efforts. The two capitals have virtually no quarrel on their objectives and each values the role of the other side in this common endeavor. Indeed, as China looks into future, it sees a number of elements like the rise of international terrorism, the easy access to the technologies, expertise and material, and the persistent regional turbulences as elements that are all making proliferation of WMD a more practical and urgent threat that requires the common effort of the international community to seek a more effective approach to address this security issue. And in this regard, how China and the United States are able to support each other in their policies is an essential part of an overall picture. This constitutes the solid basis for the future cooperation between the two countries.

On the other hand, serious differences remain. They are often more involving approaches than objectives. While China shares the U.S. grave concerns over the increasing threat of the spread of WMD, it does not believe that the threat could be contained, let alone eliminated, by a unilateral approach Nor does China believe that by primarily using force could the issue be solved. As one Chinese official stressed: "the unstable international security environment deepens the sense of insecurity of some countries. The tendency to resolve problems with force and preempt nuclear non-proliferation by military means may well turn out to produce just the opposite effect. When the war against weapons of mass destruction is in fact a war to change the regime of a country, self-protection by possessing nuclear weapons may possibly become a rather attractive option" (6). Iraq and North Korea are all the cases in point.

China is also disturbed by the U.S double standard in its policy on non-proliferation. As a matter of fact, non-proliferation is not the means with which to perpetuate the division between the nuclear haves and the nuclear have-nots. In China's perspective, the Bush administration nuclear policy, which is still based on the value of nuclear weapons, and which is even more enthusiastic in producing new ones and listing other countries as targets of nuclear strikes, will not be conducive to the strengthening of the international non-proliferation regime.

What worries China further is the U.S. increasing military transfer to Taiwan, including possibly luring the island to join the BMD, which is not only violating the obligations Washington undertakes under its agreement with Beijing, but also is itself an act of proliferation of WMD.

On the part of the United States, it appears to have also a number of complaints on China's behavior. That explains the current wait-and-see attitude of Washington towards China's White Paper. While it expressed welcome to China's new effort, and acknowledged China had enacted good legislation on this issue, it stressed that it would not "sugarcoat" its differences with China on weapons proliferation, saying "the focus is on implementation and enforcement"(7).

Of the many major differences, first and foremost is perhaps the so-called China's continuing export of its material to those countries supposed to be hostile to the U.S. like North Korea and Iran or unstable like Pakistan. The Bush administration has made many cases of this kind, pointing finger to the Chinese Government as breaching its non-proliferation commitment. As punishment, it "imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies seven times over the past two and half year, compared to a total of two during the Clinton administration's entire eight years"(8).

To be fair, the Bush administration's criticism is not entirely unfounded. As discussed above, with China's transformation from a planned economy to market economy, the ability of the central government to monitor and control the activities of Chinese exports by local companies or even individuals has been reduced, resulting in commercial activities in the past that were in violation of the non-proliferation laws or regulation without the government's knowledge. In fact, the aim of China's effort in the recent decade to strengthen the implementation of laws and regulations on non-proliferation export control is precisely for blocking the loopholes and to meet the concerns of the international community. But one cannot guarantee that there will be no such a breaching in the future despite China's emerging stringent control system just like in many other Western countries including the United States. The point is when the violations happened and are spotted, the two governments should get together to address them in a friendly and constructive way.

However, more than often not, the issue becomes more complicated because of one more intractable element involving non-proliferation. There is no clear line of demarcation in technologies, equipments and materials entirely for military or for peaceful purpose. Many of these items are of dual uses. Preoccupied with preventing any possibilities of acquiring WDM by undesired countries, Washington seems now to opt to prohibit transfer of anything sensitive even if it is entirely for peaceful usage. That has created problems not only for China but for the whole international community.

There is another issue that might also be a troublesome element in China-U.S. relations. The Bush administration seems still intent on a confrontational approach to the nuclear issue with the DPRK despite its professed interest in seeking a peaceful solution. Under its leadership, a Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) was launched, an effort aimed at thwarting Pyongyang possibly export of its nuclear or other WMD-related material by interdicting its cargo shipments on the open seas. So far, 15 nations, most of whom are U.S. allies, have claimed to participate in the initiative. But in Beijing's perspective, the PSI is as much illegitimate as inefficient. Worse, it may even give rise to military conflict. Thus the Chinese Government has expressed its serious reservation: "the Chinese side understands the concerns of the PSI participating countries about the proliferation of WMD and their vehicles of delivery. However the international community also has some concerns about the legitimacy, effectiveness and possible consequences of the interception measures of PSI. The PSI participating countries should give it a serious consideration. China has always maintained that the proliferation issue should be handled through diplomatic and political methods within the framework of international laws, and all anti-proliferation measures should contribute to the international and regional peace, security and stability (9)."

Obviously, there is still a big gap in the views on the issue. But fortunately, both countries recognize the importance of solving their problems through consultation as "between friends". And as long as they perceive the other side as friends, there is high hope of better coordination and cooperation between them.


(1) All the above contents are taken from China's White Paper, released in Beijing on December 3, 2003,

(2) Mike Nartker, "United States Will Not "Sugarcoat" Concerns Over Chinese Proliferation", Global Security Newswire,

(3) China's White Paper, released in Beijing on December 3, 2003,

(4) ibid.

(5) Vice Minister Wang Yi, Head of Chinese Delegation to the Sit-Party Talks Gives A Press Conference, in Beijing, August 30, 2003,

(6) Liu Jieyi, "statement at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues, Osaka August 2003,

(7) "US Vows Not to "Sugarcoat" Proliferation Differences with China", Agence France-Presse, December 4, 2003,

(8)For more analysis on the controversies between the two countries on the issue, see Leonard S. Spector, Jing0dong Yuan, and Phillip C. Saunders, "Prepared Statement at hearing on China's Proliferation Policies and Practices", Washington, July 24, 2003,

(9) Liu Jianchao, at Press Conference of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, December 4, 2003,

The Author:

Major General Pan Zhenqiang (retired) is Professor and Deputy President of the Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies.