May 26, 2004



SUBJECT: Backtracking on Proliferation?

The People’s Republic of China is lobbying to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a group of 40 nations that, according to the NSG’s guidelines, seek to “ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” The Bush Administration is supporting Beijing’s membership in the NSG because, as a State Department spokesman explained, China is “a significant nuclear supplier, [has] a good enough non-proliferation record, and [has] made significant improvements in export controls on nuclear and dual-use items.”

Although one would think “good enough” is hardly the standard one would want with trade in nuclear technology, China’s behavior is in fact not good enough. Soon after announcing its intention to join the NSG, Beijing also declared that it would help Pakistan – a serial weapons proliferator whose government has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – construct two nuclear reactors. In fact, NSG guidelines specifically proscribe the type of exports Beijing has agreed to supply to Islamabad. So rather than complying with these guidelines as a show of good faith to the NSG’s mission, the Chinese government chose instead to file a cleverly worded application for NSG membership stating that “China will, once admitted into NSG, act in accordance with the NSG guidelines ... and duly exercise export control over nuclear and nuclear dual-use items.”

Coincidental with Beijing’s quest for NSG membership, and American support for it, is the recent news from China that it aims to spend up $35 billion in the next decade to construct 30 nuclear power plants. On his recent trip to China, Vice President Dick Cheney lobbied Beijing to buy reactors from U.S. companies. The impression left – accurate or not – is that Washington’s concerns about nuclear proliferation are taking a back seat to the effort to make sure Beijing looks kindly on American bids.

In a major speech on WMD proliferation this past February at the National Defense University, President Bush stated that talking about stopping proliferation “means little, unless it is translated into action.” And, indeed, the president proposed that no state be allowed to import reactor equipment unless it had agreed to sign the new, more rigorous inspection protocol being put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the NPT’s regulatory and monitoring body. How the administration’s decision to turn a blind eye to China’s reactor sales to Pakistan -- a state that refuses to sign the NPT, let alone open its nuclear program to tightened international inspections -- can be squared with the president’s own proposal is anyone’s guess?

Of course, as Emerson famously wrote, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Yet, when it comes to nuclear proliferation, this degree of inconsistency is probably just plain foolish.