China’s Missile Sales to Islamabad Worry Washington

Pakistan could deploy a nuclear missile within a few years if China continues to supply missile components and know-how. A U.S. decision whether to punish China for helping Pakistan is being debated among federal agencies, U.S. officials tell the Risk Report.

At issue is the Chinese M-11 missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead about 300 kilometers. “There is a continuous stream of compelling evidence to warrant the conclusion that M-11 missiles have been transferred to Pakistan,” a senior U.S. official tells the Risk Report. During the past year, the official says, satellites and human intelligence have watched Chinese and Pakistani missile technicians travel back and forth between Beijing and Islamabad and have revealed ongoing transfers of missile-related equipment. “You haven’t got a confession, but you have so much evidence that reasonable people can judge that the missiles have been transferred.”

Neither Beijing nor Islamabad will acknowledge the sale of M-11s. Beijing only admits sending “short-range, tactical ballistic missiles that do not violate any commitments.” And Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington, Maleeha Lohdi, only admits that “Pakistan acquired short-range missiles from China that did not violate the MTCR [Missile Technology Control Regime].” However, U.S. officials say they know of no such short-range missiles in the Chinese inventory and continue to believe the missiles are some version of the M-11. Pakistan is said to be working on a new missile it calls the “Hatf-3,” but a U.S. official who tracks missile proliferation says the “Hatf-3 is just Pakistan’s name for the Chinese M-11 missile they’re the same thing.”

U.S. law provides ample room for President Clinton to penalize China for the sales. He can impose two-year trade sanctions on any foreign party that “conspires or attempts to engage in” the export of M-11-size missiles or the transfer of equipment or technology that “contributes to the design, development or production of missiles” in a country such as Pakistan. It doesn’t matter whether entire missiles have been shipped. If China has conspired to ship them and many officials acknowledge that it has Washington can take steps to penalize the exporters.

Officials from the U.S. intelligence services and other U.S. agencies are convinced there is enough evidence to impose penalties, but the White House and State Department are resisting. Former U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley believes the real reason is that Washington is afraid of offending Beijing: “Since the administration’s first priority is to repair its relationship with China, it is asking for more evidence, demanding to prove the impossible.” A senior official involved in the debate agrees: “The State Department wants to see an actual photo showing a Chinese rocket marked M-11.”

Evidence of Chinese missile sales has been accumulating for nearly five years. Chinese companies were first caught secretly selling Pakistan M-11 missile components in 1991. U.S. intelligence spotted what appeared to be M-11 launch vehicles in Pakistan. One report said that China had already supplied the launchers, along with dummy missile frames for practice purposes, and Pakistani air force technicians were already training in China. The findings triggered U.S. penalties in June 1991 against two Chinese suppliers: China Great Wall Industry Corporation and China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation. The Bush administration banned U.S. missile-tech exports to the two offending entities and to Pakistan’s space agency SUPARCO (Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission). The punishment was imposed for at least two years, but the penalties against China were waived less than a year later in March 1992, after China promised it would abide by the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The Regime, which dates from 1987, obliges supplier countries to control the export of large missiles and related technology “that could make a contribution to nuclear weapons delivery.” That means missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more. In 1993, members clarified the definition of what was controlled to “take into account the ability to trade off range and payload,” and to cover missiles or rockets that could deliver chemical or biological, as well as nuclear payloads, regardless of the payload weight. “Specially designed production facilities” for such missiles are also covered.

In March 1992, China pledged to abide by the original 1987 version of the Regime. Chinese officials could argue that the M-11 missile was not covered because it did not fly 300 kilometers with the warhead with which it was sold. A sales brochure from one of the manufacturers reportedly says the M-11 carries a 800-kilogram warhead just under 300 kilometers. This means that with a lighter, 500-kilogram payload, the two-stage, solid-fuel M-11 missile could easily fly more than 300 kilometers. Thus, the M-11 would clearly be covered by the 1993 definition.

According to intelligence information, China’s missile shipments to Pakistan appear to have resumed in late 1992. U.S. officials believe that China may have been retaliating for President Bush’s September 1992 decision to sell U.S. F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan. Beijing interpreted the U.S. action as a betrayal of a 1982 U.S.-China communique, in which Washington promised it would “gradually reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan.” After the deal was announced, Beijing angrily declared that it would “reconsider” its commitment to the MTCR. For two years, U.S. officials were unsure whether Beijing had suspended its promise to halt its missile sales.

By December 1992, the press was reporting that China had just shipped roughly two dozen M-11 missiles to Pakistan. Though some U.S. analysts seemed uncertain whether the missiles shipped were M-11s or whether China had modified the missiles to avoid violating the MTCR, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported in January 1993 that Chinese sources in Beijing had confirmed the sale of M-11s to Pakistan. Indian officials also believed Pakistan received the missiles and was working to modify the design for longer ranges.

The debate over what Pakistan got in late 1992 went on until August 1993, when the Clinton administration determined that China had shipped M-11 equipment and technology, but not necessarily complete missiles. The Administration banned the sale of U.S. missile-related technology to Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense and to ten Chinese firms.

The sanctions were to remain in force for two years. But in October 1994, China pledged once again to stop its missile sales. And for the first time China agreed that the MTCR covered missiles with an “inherent capability” to deliver 500 kilograms 300 kilometers. In exchange for these pledges, the United States lifted its sanctions against the ten Chinese companies.

Despite its repeated promises, China’s transfer of missile equipment has never stopped, according to well-informed U.S. officials. In July 1995, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence believes the storage crates at Pakistan’s Sargodha Air Force Base west of Lahore may contain more than 30 M-11 missiles. Intelligence officials believe Chinese M-11s probably have been in Pakistan since November 1992, when China was “reconsidering” its stance on missile exports after the F-16 sale. Since then, Pakistan has been constructing maintenance facilities, launchers and storage sheds for the missiles, as well as housing for their crews, all with Chinese help. China denies these reports.

Washington would clearly prefer for Islamabad to keep its Chinese imports boxed up for the time being. Any change in Pakistan’s missile status could upset the Clinton administration’s efforts to ease some of the prohibitions against U.S. aid to Pakistan (see Pressler story, page 10). Pakistan is said to understand this very well. Unveiling the M-11s could also provoke New Delhi into deploying its new “Prithvi” surface-to-surface missile, which could threaten Pakistan’s cities with nuclear warheads.

The question for the future is whether the State Department will punish China again for its continuing exports. Despite evidence that many U.S. officials regard as clear, the State Department says the case still isn’t strong enough. Ambassador Lilley warns that this attitude could create the impression that Washington doesn’t mean business. “That’s the problem of placating Beijing by not addressing its behavior; the Chinese look at Washington and say: You’re a paper tiger.'” A senior official defends Foggy Bottom’s inaction by arguing that there is “nothing new” in recent intelligence reports: “We have been concerned for some time about the M-11s, but it has not been confirmed that the actual M-11 missiles have been transferred.” But he adds, “Don’t get me wrong any day new intelligence could come in revealing transfers we didn’t know about before.”