If on January 24th, the “Doomsday Clock” is set at 90 seconds to midnight, the reasons include not only the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the climate crisis, and biological threats, but also the increased risk of nuclear escalation being encouraged by China and its surrounding countries to support the development and increase of nuclear technology and missile technology. Countries receiving Chinese support include North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.
Likewise, a day earlier, on January 23, the US Congressional Research Service’s “Focus” report detailed China’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities, including the threat of China acquiring US-origin nuclear technology.
The report cites how the Chinese government ended its direct involvement in the transfer of nuclear and missile-related programs, yet Chinese companies and individuals continued to export goods related to those programs, particularly to Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.
The report also raised concerns about entities operating in China providing other forms of support for proliferation-sensitive activities such as illicit financing and money laundering.
Notably, the Doomsday Clock’s time is set by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Safety Committee with the support of the Bulletin’s sponsoring committee, which includes 10 Nobel laureates. Previously, since 2020, the Doomsday Clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight.
The Doomsday Clock was created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 to convey how close humanity was to self-destruction. Designed by painter Marty Langsdorf, the clock has become an international symbol of the world’s vulnerability to nuclear weapons, climate change and destructive technological disaster.
The dramatic expansion of its nuclear capabilities is particularly troubling given China’s consistent refusal to consider measures to improve transparency and predictability, according to the CSA’s communiqué.
In this regard, the U.S. Department of Defense claimed that Beijing may increase its nuclear arsenal fivefold by 2035, which “could soon rival the nuclear capabilities of the United States and Russia, with unpredictable consequences for stability.”
It expresses concern that the United States, Russia and China are now pursuing a comprehensive nuclear weapons modernization program, setting the stage for a dangerous new “third nuclear age” competition.
China’s nuclear arsenal appears to be expanding significantly, and its current nuclear weapons modernization and renewal program is advancing at an unprecedented speed and scale.
Intensifying disputes over issues such as human rights, democratic values, the rule of law, and international norms seem to have misled China into thinking that Western countries are intentionally causing trouble, and are making excuses to demonize and contain China, fearing that its rise could challenge the West in the international system dominant position.
Beijing may believe that the only solution is to further consolidate its power until the West recognizes that China’s success and power are unquestionable, and that a larger and highly modern nuclear arsenal can provide the best.
This is said to make the country’s rivals respect China and be more restrained in their dealings with Beijing.
The Congressional Research Service report elaborates in more detail on China’s role in nuclear proliferation, particularly its lack of transparency and double standards.
As a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as a nuclear-weapon state (NWS), China should not transfer nuclear weapons to “any recipient” or “in any way… assist, encourage, or induce any” non-nuclear-weapon state” to create or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons”.
However, while the Chinese government has recently ceased direct involvement in nuclear-related proliferation and the transfer of complete missile systems, Chinese entities continue to engage in proliferation activities and there are “weaknesses” in China’s export control system, the report said.
The report mentions how “Chinese entities” continue to “provide MTCR-controlled items to missile programs that raise proliferation concerns, including those of Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Pakistan.”
As a result, the United States continues to sanction Chinese entities on the grounds of proliferation. For example, on November 25, 2020, the State Department imposed sanctions on two Chinese entities for “transferring sensitive technology and items to Iran’s missile program.”
Earlier, the U.S. Treasury Department froze U.S. assets and banned transactions with a Chinese coal company for allegedly using foreign exchange generated from selling North Korean coal to buy “nuclear and missile components” for North Korea.
Chinese proliferation practices include money laundering, the provision of illicit financial services, and illicit procurement by entities operating within China. According to a 2018 U.S. Treasury Department report, “Chinese entities and individuals” were involved in proliferation financing “for the benefit” of Iran and North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
A 2017 U.S. Treasury Department report similarly assessed North Korea’s use and maintenance of a network of financial representatives, primarily in China, who operate as proxies for North Korean financial institutions.
These representatives orchestrated schemes to set up front or shell companies and manage secret bank accounts to move and disguise illicit funds, evade sanctions, and fund the proliferation of North Korea’s WMD and ballistic missile programs.
Then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Huang asserted in a November 2020 speech that “China hosted no less than two dozen North Korean WMD and ballistic missile procurement representatives and bank representatives.”
China’s construction of civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan has been another concern of Congress. China has built four reactors in Pakistan and is building two more. Pakistan has IAEA safeguards agreements in force for all these reactors.
However, guidelines from the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG), to which China is a member, prohibit such projects in Pakistan because all nuclear facilities in the country lack IAEA safeguards. Islamabad’s nuclear weapons facilities are not safeguarded.
The US argues that only the first two reactor projects are in line with China’s nuclear supply commitments; Beijing and Islamabad had contracts for these reactors before China joined the NSG in 2004.
In fact, Pakistan and North Korea have defense technology cooperation with Pakistan, and China often plays the role of mediator and guarantor, which is already an open secret. This resulted in North Korea supplying Pakistan with Rodong missiles and getting help from Pakistan in developing nuclear technology.
Moreover, China has always supported Pakistan despite the fact that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, was found in 2003 to have traded know-how and technology with Iran, Libya and North Korea. In recent years, some nuclear materials provided by China’s Suntech Technology Co., Ltd. to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission violated the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council and were transferred to North Korea.
By the way, recently (December 29), British Border Force agents seized a package from Pakistan containing uranium at London Heathrow Airport. However, despite Pakistan’s record on nuclear proliferation, China has consistently supported Islamabad’s request to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), although it has been suggested that China is doing so only to thwart India’s bid to gain a place in the 48-member export control regime.
Still, China’s role in the growing proliferation of nuclear and missile technology around the world may come under increased international scrutiny as the war in Ukraine is increasingly interpreted as the folly of Kyiv’s 1992 handover of nuclear weapons.
The theory here is that nuclear weapons ensure the security and survival of a country, and if Ukraine kept them after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia would never have dared to attack it.
That being the case, more and more countries will naturally choose nuclear weapons to ensure their independence and sovereignty, that is the argument. And in this regard, China may fish in troubled waters by becoming the “godfather” of all those who subscribe to the philosophy of a world less dominated by the United States.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has commented on politics, foreign policy and strategic matters for nearly three decades. He is a former National Fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research and a Seoul Peace Prize Fellow and a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute of Peace and Conflict.
- Contact: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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