China's alleged transfers of missile technology to Pakistan are expected to generate sharp disagreement next Thursday when U.S. and Chinese officials meet in Beijing. The United States says China has violated a pledge not to make such transfers. China denies the accusations.
China sees Pakistan as one of its closest friends and allies. Pakistan helped broker the rapprochement between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s and has defended China on many issues.
Pakistan sees China as its most reliable friend, not only for the Chinese weapons technology it gets, but also for other help, such as in building a new deepwater seaport at Gwadar. And Pakistan sees China as an ally in its dispute with India over Kashmir.
Phillip Saunders is director of the East Asian Nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. He says China has been instrumental in helping Pakistan develop its conventional and nuclear missile programs, including "both technological assistance, the provision of components, and the provision of M-11 short range ballistic missiles in the early 1990s. So, that's the type of things that have been transferred. Partly under U.S. pressure, the flow of technology has been reduced substantially. The kinds of things that they appear to be providing are components and the technology that can be used in Pakistan's efforts to build longer range missiles [such as] medium range missiles."
A report earlier this month in the Washington Times said a Chinese company has shipped components to Pakistan for its Shaheen One and Shaheen Two missile programs. And Mr. Saunders says that clearly violated China's assurances made in November to the United States.
"China pledged not to assist in any way countries in developing missiles that were capable of delivering nuclear weapons," he said. "It is our sense that the Shaheen I and II would fall into that category. So, I think that's one of the real concerns here. Is China violating the pledge that it made in November of last year?"
The Chinese government and the Chinese company have denied the Washington Times report, but members of Congress are expected to call for sanctions.
Mr. Saunders says such sanctions might forbid U.S. firms from doing business with the Chinese company that allegedly sent the components or the Pakistani entity that may have received them. He says sanctions might be more effective at embarrassing China by damaging its international reputation than in any economic cost.
"When China makes a commitment and then engages in activity like this, that violates that commitment, or seems to violate it, it causes China's credibility to be called into question across the board," said Mr. Saunders. "But also in other areas, such as the WTO, where people are starting to question if China cheats on its proliferation commitments, can it be trusted in the economic area."
Radha Kumar, a specialist on peace and conflict issues at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it is not right to compare China's compliance on proliferation issues with its adherence to the rules of the World Trade Organization because "when it comes to questions of proliferation, the fact is that great powers tend to be fairly selective in how they apply the rules, whereas on the WTO, it's a much more nuts and bolts issue as far as the people of any country are concerned. And I think China has shown a great deal of consistent imagination and commitment to trade. So, I think that there they would be very likely to follow any rules that they would agree to have set. I wouldn't have the same worries about that," she said.
When the United States criticizes China's weapons transfers to Pakistan, China often points to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. But Mr. Saunders says the two are not the same. He notes that China is believed to have given Pakistan nuclear materials in the 1980s, but the United States acted to stop Taiwan's nuclear weapons program. Yet he says there is a parallel in that China says Washington has violated a commitment it made to Beijing that the United States would reduce the quality and quantity of weapons it provides Taiwan.
So he says, China may be using its transfers to Pakistan to get some diplomatic leverage with the United States on the issue of Taiwan.