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Segal: China Hoping to Avoid Confrontation Over Iranís Nuclear Program

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program
January 24, 2006

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Adam Segal, a CFR expert on Chinese technological and military policies, says the U.S. and European effort to bring Iran to the Security Council for its decision to continue research and work on its nuclear program puts China in an uncomfortable spot. While there is no question, Segal says, that China's much more interested in good relations with the United States than it is with Iran, Iran nevertheless is one of a number of Middle Eastern oil states that China is trying to develop good relations with.

If the Iran issue gets to the United Nations, "it's an extremely difficult tightrope for the Chinese to walk down, " says Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow for China studies. "But I think...they would very much like the Russians to take the lead. They're unlikely to support sanctions, but they're likely to let the Russians take the heat for that."

On North Korea, Segal says the Chinese are eager to work out an arrangement that would get North Korea to end its nuclear program, but is so fearful of a breakdown in North Korean society that it is reluctant to bring real pressure to bear on Pyongyang.

Segal was interviewed on January 24, 2006 by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

China is a nuclear power and a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. What has China's attitude been on questions of nonproliferation over time? Has it been a strong supporter of it?

Traditionally, not, though we've seen a lot of progress in China over the last twenty years. But Iran and North Korea currently are two important exceptions. So what you've seen over the years internally in China is a growth of export-control laws that are supposed to prevent proliferation and control Chinese firms who sell things to wrong-end users. And China has generally narrowed both the geographic scope of its proliferation and the materials, so in the 1980s there was a large, widespread cooperation with any number of countries that had nuclear weapons aspirations.

Pakistan, I guess, was in that group.

Pakistan, Iran, Korea, South Africa, Argentina. But what we've seen since the 1990s is a narrowing of that cooperation. So now China cooperates with almost no one on nuclear energy issues. In fact, under U.S. pressure, it cut off cooperation with the Iranians in the late 1990s and has pretty much stopped selling missile systems, like it did in the 1980s, to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia. But it has been continually penalized by U.S. administrations, including this one, for selling dual-use missile technology to the Iranians.

Dual-use ballistic missile technology?

Things like metal components, guidance systems, which have dual use that could be used in the Iranian missile program.

And why has this changed? Is it to make sure its relations with the United States do not suffer?

I think it was two things. A large part of it was maintaining good relations with the United States. In the late 1990s, China decided that most of its security and political aspirations could only be gotten diplomatically through good relations with Washington. I think there was also a realization in China that proliferation could be a threat to China and that eventually [proliferation] could come back to haunt it, especially after the Pakistani and Indian tests. It also did not have a lot to gain from regional arms races.

You said at the start that the exceptions are North Korea and Iran.

And Pakistan.

Why don't we start with North Korea? Now, China is the host for the six-nation talks focused on getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. Had they helped North Korea develop its programs?

It's possible that in the early 1980s they provided some assistance in the nuclear energy program—I don't think we know for sure. From what we learned from Pakistan, the design for the Koreans came from the Pakistanis. But there was some cooperation with China on nuclear energy. In the 1990s, I think it's clear that the Chinese had not been assisting the North Koreans and it's clear that they now want North Korea to denuclearize. But there are other main concerns to China, namely [a fear] of collapse in North Korea, so they're constantly balancing those two.

Recently the head of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, visited China on a week-long trip. We don't really know what happened except afterwards the U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill met privately with the North Korean negotiator. And again, we don't know what happened in those talks. Do you have any speculation on this? Have you heard anything?

No. I think the Chinese are constantly trying to push the North Koreans and the United States back to the negotiating table. The Chinese clearly have a lot at stake in the success of the six-party talks. It's one of the first times they've taken the lead in international negotiations. The motivation for Kim's visit is hard to discuss since we know so little about it, but I think what the Chinese are constantly telling the North Koreans is, "You can reform and still stay in power. Look what we did." So I think Kim went to Shenzhen, which had been China's first special economic zone, where the Chinese attempted to test reform in a small locality to see how it worked. The North Koreans are building similar special economic zones in North Korea. I think it was probably a further sense of, "You can do economic reform and still maintain political power."

Do they have much leverage on the North Koreans on the nuclear issue?

I think they have much more leverage than they will admit to the United States. They managed to bring the North Koreans back to the table once before when the Chinese claimed that a fuel pipeline to North Korea was "mysteriously under repair" for three days; China is still the main supplier of food and fuel to North Korea. But I think the Chinese are very unwilling to use the leverage because of, one, the fear of North Korea collapsing, and two, I don't think they think sanctions would be effective.

If North Korea collapses, would it be total chaos there? I don't know what you mean by collapsing; North Korea has such a strong military.

Well, I think the fear is you will get hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border, which then could probably destabilize an area that's already heavily ethnically Korean inside China. And would U.S. troops [already stationed on the border between North and South Korea] move up the Korean peninsula? That's the fear.

And on Iran—I haven't heard them say much on Iran. What kind of relationship do they have with Tehran?

They have a growing relationship with Iran. Iran provides, I think, 13 percent of [China's] oil and Chinese oil demands are only going to go up. It is an increasing geo-strategic relationship, where China wants to increase its influence in the Middle East and have good relations with all the potential suppliers. They signed a cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia to develop further energy cooperation. I think it's very typical for the Chinese to be quiet while Iran is involved in these negotiations with the United States and the European Union. They're going to say that we should have more negotiations; they will expect Russia to take the lead in blocking aggressive sanctions from the U.S. or EU.

The next major test will occur at the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) special session February 2, but I guess that's just expected to send the issue to the Security Council but not with any special punitive recommendations. China has enormous trade with the United States, too, and it must be a tough decision for them to decide which side to stand on this.

I think it is clear which side they are tilted to; in their overall relationships, the United States is so much more important. If you think about every kind of critical goal of the Chinese leadership—economic growth, domestic stability, reclaiming Taiwan—it's the United States that holds the key to all of those things. Iran serves lots of other purposes—energy, an irritant to the United States—it's an extremely difficult tightrope for the Chinese to walk down. But I think, like I said, they would very much like the Russians to take the lead. They're unlikely to support sanctions, but they're likely to let the Russians take the heat for that.

And on China's overall relations in the UN Security Council, again they don't seem to take the lead on much.

No, they don't. And we traditionally see them as very willing to abstain or take a secondary role. It's true that over the last five years we've seen a more assertive, self-confident China willing to use international organizations to achieve its goals. But it is unlikely to take the lead, to be the sole member to veto any sanctions against anyone. It's clear that in the case of the buildup to the Iraq war, it knew that France and Russia were also on the same page. And on Iran, it's clear that Russia will be in a very similar position [opposed to sanctions] and it will let Russia take the lead.

And on Pakistan, that relationship is ending on the nuclear side?

Cooperation [between Pakistan and China], as far as we know, has ended.

That was an unusual chapter.

It dates back to a time in the 1960s and 1970s when China would have vocalized the view that the NPT and the current proliferation regime was unfair; that it was "colonial" to have two sets of countries. But that rhetoric is gone.

When did they change? At the time the NPT was signed?

Essentially, yes, in the early 1990s.

I guess there's a difference in attitude between the United States and China—a very significant one—in that the United States really seems very alarmed at the prospects of nuclear weapons being in North Korea's hands, as well as the potential for military nuclear arms in Iran's nuclear program. Has China showed that similar alarm, or not?

I think in the case of North Korea, it probably already has a nuclear weapon, so we're all kind of living with it, no matter how alarmed we are. I think the fear for the Chinese is that if North Korea declares loudly its nuclear weapons, or if North Korea tests, then Japan tests and perhaps South Korea tests and who knows what's going to happen with Taiwan, so there's a domino effect the Chinese are worried about. With Iran, there are not the same strategic interests involved for China. There are no Chinese troops in Iraq and there's no strong relationship to Israel. So I think the Chinese are concerned but certainly not as alarmed as the United States.

Of course, India has a nuclear program, both civilian and military. Are China's relations with India any better than they used to be?

They're much better. When the Indians tested [in 1974], one of the official reasons they gave to the United States was China. They said they couldn't live with China without a nuclear weapon. But Indian-Chinese relations have been really very good the last several years. There's been improvement on the border issues; economically, there's increasing talk about telecommunication cooperation between Chinese hardware and India's software; and there is some sense of India and China being the two rising powers and how they're going to manage their affairs in Asia.

Have the Chinese expressed any concern about the U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement, announced last summer, which is yet to be implemented?

I think there is some concern about what the agreement symbolizes, which to some people is the view that the United States is looking for regional partners to contain China. So you have not only the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, but you have increased military exercises between the United States and India—air and naval exercises—and, at the same time, the United States is strengthening its defense ties to Japan. And so there are analysts in China who think the United States is looking for regional partners to contain China.

I guess Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made that speech in Asia, many months ago, about making India the offsetting partner against China.

It's clear that this administration from the beginning has talked about India as being a counterpoint.

How did Rumsfeld's trip to China go in October?

I think expectations were set low and they were met. It was important for everyone to exchange views. There was a lot of argument about which kind of facilities Rumsfeld would see because one of the big complaints on the U.S. side is that there's not enough transparency on the Chinese side. He did get to go to a site they've been asking to see for a long time, which houses the missile and nuclear programs.

The U.S. military seems to be very concerned about China's military buildup. Is this a legitimate concern?

I think there have been significant improvements in the Chinese military, probably starting in 2001. They're not surprising improvements, but perhaps they happened at a little bit faster pace than the Pentagon expected. They are clearly designed to try to coerce Taiwan back to the negotiating table or back into the fold and to delay, disrupt, or deny the United States the ability to come to Taiwan's defense. I think that's clear and I think it is an issue of pretty big concern for the United States.

I guess at any time that could become a major issue.

It could. We saw trends where people were extremely worried in the run-up to the 1999 presidential election in Taiwan. I think now, actually, people are fairly relaxed that the trends are going in a different direction because economic ties across the Taiwan Strait are so well developed. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost in the parliamentary elections. President Chen, who has been one of the promoters of Taiwanese independence, has lost his footing politically. The Chinese have reached out to the [Taiwan] Nationalist Party [TNP] and there have been visits from the highest level of the TNP to China.

So right now the mood in Taiwan is to accept the status quo.

Exactly.

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