China has said it will limit its arms sales in an effort to stop the spread of technology that can be used to make weapons of mass destruction. That issue will be on the agenda when Chinese President Jiang Zemin and U.S. President Bush meet in Texas later this week.
Experts say China is working to build better relations with the United States by responding to U.S. demands to clamp down on weapons proliferation. They say the move is designed to improve China's image as a responsible player in the international community.
But pressure from the United States is only part of the reason China has decided to tighten controls, according to former U.S. ambassador to China Winston Lord. "I think it is, above all, China acting in its own national interest. This is not just a favor to us. It is in their own interest as a major power. Do they want, for example, weapons of mass destruction in the Persian Gulf when China itself has to import more and more oil from that region and would like to have stability there?" he explained.
But Michael O'Hanlon, an Asian security expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says China has previously exported weapons technology without considering it a threat to its own security. "I think the proof is going to have to be in its future behavior, not in some general argument that China should want stability and nonproliferation. That has been true for some time and yet its behavior has not been consistent with that," Mr. O'Hanlon said.
Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control says China's behavior on the issue has followed a pattern. "Chinese companies export things that help other countries make weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. complains about it, and then, the Chinese either make encouraging statements to the effect that they are going to stop, or they put out rules which would lead someone to hope that they are actually going to stop. But then the problem is they do not really stop," he said. Mr. Milhollin said the world should wait and see whether this time China does what it says it will do.
Mr. O'Hanlan says although China's announcement is good news, it may come too late. He says China may already be responsible for the spread of nuclear weapons. "There is some worry that Pakistan provided some nuclear help to North Korea, and Pakistan may have gotten that from China. So it just goes to show there can be a little bit of a cascading effect," he said.
Later this week, President Jiang Zemin will visit President Bush at the Bush ranch in Texas. Mr. Jiang hopes the United States will lift sanctions imposed on Chinese companies accused of exporting weapons technology. Former ambassador Lord says China's announcement raises the possibility of a change in U.S.-China relations concerning weapons proliferation.
"The whole question of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has been an important issue in U.S.-China relations for many years. Usually, it has been a source of contention and division between us. Now the opportunity lies there for it to be a source of cooperation or parallel action between us," Mr. Lord said.
He says Mr. Bush and Mr. Jiang may find common ground on Iraq and North Korea's weapons of mass destruction.