A New China Syndrome: Beijing’s Atomic Bazaar

The Washington Post
May 12, 1991, Page C1

It should come as no surprise that China is selling Pakistan a nuclear-capable missile and selling Algeria a reactor that could fuel nuclear weapons. These are only the latest in a long line of irresponsible Chinese weapons exports. During the 1980s, China sold billions of dollars worth of nuclear and missile technology to South Asia, South Africa, South America and the Middle East. That these sales are still happening — after a decade of U.S. efforts to stop them — shows how dismally U.S. diplomacy has failed.

Last week, President Bush sent yet another mission to Beijing, where Undersecretary of State Robert Kimmitt complained about China’s arms exports and its human rights record. Late in the week, Wu Jianmin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, publicly rebuked the U.S. mission, saying in part that “China’s policies . . .will not be changed by external pressure.”

Wu’s public tirade did not mention Beijing’s arms-export record. A study that we have just completed shows that China has never kept its promises to restrain weapons exports and that its real goal is to expand its global influence by profiting from nuclear and missile sales.

By June 3, Bush must decide whether to renew China’s most favored nation (MFN) trading status, a benefit worth billions to Chinese exporters. China’s trade surplus with the United States jumped from $ 3.5 billion in 1988 to $ 10.4 billion in 1989, the largest U.S. trade deficit after Japan and Taiwan. This year the gap could top $ 15 billion. Revoking MFN would increase American tariffs as much as tenfold and could force China to decide whether its huge U.S. trade profits are more important than the secret nuclear and missile deals we describe below:

South Asia: In 1983, U.S. intelligence made a surprising discovery: For the first time, one developing country had given another the complete design of a tested nuclear weapon with a yield of about 25 kilotons, twice the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The supplier was China, the recipient Pakistan. According to U.S. officials, American agents even learned catalogue numbers of some weapon parts. Indignant, U.S. officials made a model of the bomb — about the size of a soccer ball and with detonators around its surface — and showed it to Pakistani diplomats. Computer modeling of the weapon by U.S. weapons experts showed it to be completely reliable.

U.S. officials now confirm that China also gave Pakistan something worse — enough weapon-grade uranium to fuel two nuclear weapons.

With the Chinese design, Pakistan has been able to make and test nuclear weapon parts one by one and to test the whole design with a dummy nuclear core. According to a news report unchallenged by U.S. officials, Pakistan now has a workable bomb weighing only 400 pounds.

Despite all this, U.S. officials in April 1984 initialed a nuclear trade agreement with China based on a famous earlier White House toast in which Premier Zhao declared that China does not “engage in nuclear proliferation ourselves, nor do we help other countries develop nuclear weapons.”

But Chinese scientists were soon seen at Pakistan’s secret Kahuta complex, helping Pakistan produce weapon-strength uranium with gas centrifuges. Meanwhile, China secretly sold sensitive nuclear material to Pakistan’s rival, India, that would allow India to start building a nuclear arsenal. A Reagan administration official admitted that this conduct “raised certain questions about how the Chinese interpret their nonproliferation policies . . . .”

The Reagan administration nevertheless signed the agreement and told Congress that “China has now declared its opposition to proliferation and taken concrete steps toward global nonproliferation norms and practices.”

China’s help to Pakistan continues. According to West German officials, China in 1986 sold Pakistan tritium, used to achieve fusion in hydrogen bombs and boost the yield of atomic bombs enough to destroy entire cities. Pakistan is believed to have enough weapon-grade uranium for about 10 nuclear weapons.

Last month, China was discovered by U.S. intelligence sources to be secretly selling Pakistan the M-11 missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead about 185 miles. U.S. intelligence has already sighted M-11 launchers in Pakistan. The M-11’s range is at the limit set by the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement among industrial nations not to export missiles that can carry nuclear-sized payloads more than 185 miles. China has rejected the regime, which its exports clearly undermine.

Meanwhile, from 1982 to 1987, China secretly sold India at least 130 to 150 tons of “heavy water,” dealing through a West German broker, Alfred Hempel, an ex-Nazi who figured in various Chinese nuclear technology deals. Heavy water is used to make plutonium, a nuclear weapon fuel. The Chinese could have been under no illusions about where the heavy water was going. Ton quantities of heavy water are required only for reactors, and in the mid-1980s, only India’s reactors needed multi-ton quantities.

China sold the heavy water with no strings attached, allowing India for the first time to start a reactor entirely free of international controls — meaning that the reactor’s plutonium would be free to go into atomic bombs. Chinese heavy water sales continued until 1987, enabling India to import enough to start at least two and possibly three reactors free of international controls. Running at full capacity, these three reactors can make enough plutonium for up to 40 atomic bombs per year.

South Africa, South America: As early as 1981, U.S. officials protested Chinese shipments to South Africa and South America. Hempel was sending Chinese uranium to South Africa and uranium and heavy water to Argentina. The U.S. State Department, anxious to get South Africa to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, complained that the Chinese enriched uranium “would weaken the American potential to influence South African policies.” The two large shipments could triple the production of weapon-grade bomb fuel.

Asked to explain the shipments to Argentina, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Song Zhigaung blamed Hempel, saying he had guaranteed that “the end user was in the Federal Republic of Germany and that the delivery was destined for peaceful use.” But in almost the same breath, Song admitted being told that “the fuel reached Argentina.”

In 1982, well after the first U.S. complaints, Hempel sent at least 50 more tons of Chinese heavy water to Argentina, enough to make a few atomic bombs per year if Argentina wanted. A French report on the shipments later comented, “One receives the impression that . . . for the present, each Chinese department tries in its own way to bring in the much sought-after foreign exchange . . . .”

In 1984, China also supplied Argentina’s rival, Brazil. Secretly and without submitting to international inspection, China shipped enriched uranium useful to bomb-making. Brazil, like Argentina, rejects the Nonproliferation Treaty and has a secret nuclear program.

China also agreed with Brazil in 1985 to help with liquid fuel technology and missile guidance in return for solid fuel rocket technology. This may help Brazil build its first strategic missile, projected to have a 2,000-mile range, from its VLS space rocket.

The Middle East: Last month, U.S. intelligence revealed that China was secretly building a heavy water reactor in Algeria, which has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The reactor is too small to produce electricity economically and too large for research. Its sole purpose seems to be to make nuclear weapon material.

At an announced power of 15 megawatts, the reactor could make enough plutonium for about two bombs every three years. Reactor experts say that with upgrading, the Algerian reactor could make up to two bombs per year. (In the 1970s, Israel quietly scaled up its Dimona heavy water reactor from 26 to more than 100 megawatts).

Its reactor discovered, Algeria promised to put it under international inspection. But even with inspection, the only barrier to nuclear weapons will be Algeria’s pledge to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not to divert the reactor’s plutonium for bombs. But such a pledge can be difficult to enforce at times of tension. For example, ever since the Persian Gulf war, the IAEA has been unable to inspect, and therefore to enforce, a similar pledge by Iraq.

Chinese missile sales in the region include selling the 1,500-mile range CSS-2 to Saudi Arabia. The low-accuracy missile is almost useless as a conventional weapon, but a threat when armed with a nuclear warhead, whose large blast compensates for the inaccuracy.

In July 1988, China apparently agreed to sell Syria the M-9 missile, designed to carry a nuclear warhead about 375 miles. After U.S. officials complained, a Chinese spokesman declared that “China always held a serious attitude toward the problem of selling medium-range missiles.” But even this vague statement may not apply: China may consider the M-9 a short-range missile.

Syria is already taking delivery of North Korean Scud missiles produced with Chinese help, a three-corner arrangement that makes China and North Korea the last suppliers of dangerous missiles in the world.

American diplomats have utterly failed to bring China under control. China rejects the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the two multilateral efforts that try to limit dangerous nuclear sales. China also rejects the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a group of 16 nations pledged to halt the spread of long-range missiles.

According to a study in the journal International Security, U.S. diplomats who deal with the Foreign Ministry have been talking to the wrong people. “Decision-making on arms sales resides in specialized corporations that exercise nearly autonomous authority because of their . . .personal connections.”

The study says that the Chinese military controls the country’s two major exporting corporations. By negotiating secretly with foreign buyers and reporting directly to the highest echelons of the regime, the corporations avoid interference from the Foreign Ministry. The military wants hard currency to buy advanced weapons abroad to modernize its obsolescent armed forces.

As it turns out, the managers of the exporting firms are often the children or relatives of Communist Party leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. According to the trade journal Nucleonics Week, these managers keep a share of the profits for deposit in foreign bank accounts and have made nuclear smuggling a “quasi-official Chinese policy.”

The only way to change China’s behavior is to force a crackdown on the exporters. Washington should suspend most favored nation trade status until China makes real commitments. China must join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which would commit China to reasonable nuclear export behavior. To show good faith, China should scale down the Algerian research reactor to two megawatts, enough for research but too small for bomb-making. This is the only real protection against the reactor’s misuse.

China must also join the MTCR, which could curb its missile exports. Again to show good faith, China should publicly renounce its M-11 missile sale to Pakistan and M-9 missile sale to Syria. Indeed, if these sales go through, China could face sanctions under the U.S. Missile Technology Control Act. The president could bar the exporter from receiving U.S. technology or exporting to the United States.

If China does not take these actions, it should lose access to U.S. high technology. Recently, Bush took the first step by blocking U.S. parts for a Chinese satellite. The state-owned buyer in China was suspected of selling missiles to Pakistan. This was no surprise: China’s high-tech importers are the same companies that make the dangerous missile sales. As a second step, Bush should hold up the sale of a high-powered computer that he approved in December. If China’s sales persist, the U.S. Commerce Department should add China to the “Z List” of countries such as North Korea and Cuba to which sales of U.S. high technology is barred.

With the Cold War over, the United States no longer needs China to counter the Soviet Union. The main threat to world security, as the Gulf War showed, now comes from Third World dictators brandishing weapons of mass destruction. To treat as a friend a country that supplies these weapons is certain folly. To coddle China’s dictators — as we did Saddam Hussein — only puts off the day of reckoning. The United States must choke the Chinese arms suppliers now or face the exports later.

Gary Milhollin is a University of Wisconsin law professor and director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington. Gerard White is assistant director of the project.