China's phenomenal economic growth over the last three decades, along with the country's rising international status, has generated high expectations regarding Beijing's contributions to the global and regional agendas for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. At times, these high expectations have led to dissatisfaction with China's current disarmament and nonproliferation portfolio. Indeed, China has come under a lot of criticism in the international press—over Beijing's nuclear cooperation with Pakistan (The Diplomat), Chinese individuals' secret sales of prohibited items to Iran (Newsweek), and Beijing's reluctance to punish North Korea's nuclear provocations (The New York Times). To its critics, China has been both a consistent proliferator and a free rider on (or even a block to) global nonproliferation efforts.
But these criticisms are misleading and simply not objective. The truth is that, since the late 1980s, China has undergone a dramatic transformation in nonproliferation policy and implementation. To be sure, China was skeptical decades ago about the benefits of nonproliferation. But today Beijing is a proactive player in nearly all the major nonproliferation treaties and regimes. Beijing may have failed so far to win membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime, but it has nonetheless observed the regime's guidelines and control lists. China demonstrated increasing interest in nonproliferation when, in 1997, it suspended transfers of nuclear reactors and missile technologies to Iran. Beijing has investigated Chinese entities and individuals suspected of assisting other countries' nuclear programs. Moreover, to close loopholes that have permitted Chinese individuals and privately owned companies to engage in illicit trade activities, Beijing has created new legal and administrative mechanisms that tighten export controls and sanction any exports of restricted goods.
China is also an active participant in multilateral efforts to cope with proliferation challenges. China has taken a leading role in the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. Beijing played a uniquely constructive part in the marathon negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal. China has endorsed UN resolutions regarding both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. China was critical to the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in negotiations toward the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. China has been a key country in upholding the norms of both the treaty and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Despite all this, room for improvement exists in China's implementation of its expanding commitments. China remains in the midst of a great social and economic transformation. It faces enormous challenges in implementing government policy in general—not just where nonproliferation is concerned. Full implementation of national nonproliferation goals will require strengthened legal frameworks, institutional structures, and personnel procedures. Moreover, effective export controls require technical training and expertise at a huge number of state-owned and private companies. It takes time and work to put all this into place. China has taken steps to address these challenges by, for example, conducting joint training courses with other countries.
But additional opportunities exist for Beijing to strengthen its role in nonproliferation. For example, it could play a more proactive role regarding nuclear and missile proliferation challenges on the Korean Peninsula—an issue with profound implications for Northeast Asian stability and for China's own security.
Before the late 1990s, when China was the only nuclear weapon state in Asia, Beijing pursued nonproliferation goals in its own way: by issuing no nuclear threats, basing no nuclear weapons on other countries' soil, extending no nuclear umbrella to other countries, and relying on nuclear weapons only to deter nuclear attacks. Today, given the changed geopolitical landscape around China's periphery, and also given China's growing international influence, Beijing has come to appreciate nuclear nonproliferation more than in years past. Preventing states from going nuclear clearly serves China's current national interests, and nonproliferation should continue to occupy a high place in Beijing's policy agenda. In years to come, with strengthened capacity and greater clout, China will have a larger say in setting regional and global norms and is likely to be an active, responsible stakeholder in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.