On January 24, the “Doomsday Clock” was set to 90 seconds to midnight, largely due to Russia invading Ukraine, the climate crisis, and biological threats, as well as China’s encouragement of nuclear escalation by backing countries such as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran in their development of nuclear technology.
On January 22, the US Congressional Research Service released an “In Focus” report delving into China’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities, as well as the risk of Chinese acquisition of US nuclear technology.
Though the Chinese government has formally ceased its nuclear and missile-related activities, according to the report, Chinese businesses and individuals are still trading products linked to those items with countries including Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Furthermore, the report sounded an alarm about entities operating in China, who are engaged in activities that could facilitate the proliferation of items, like money laundering and illicit financing.
The “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’” Science and Security Board, with the help of its Board of Sponsors consisting of 10 Nobel Laureates, sets the time on the Doomsday Clock. In 2020, the time was set at 100 seconds to midnight.
In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock as a visual representation of how close the world was to destroying itself. Designed by painter Marty Langsdorf, it has since become a universal symbol of global risks from nuclear weapons, climate change, and technological threats.
China’s expansive nuclear program is particularly concerning due to its persistent refusal to adopt measures that would increase transparency and reliability, as reported by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board.
The US Defense Department asserts that if Beijing’s offensive capabilities continue to grow in the next 15 years, they may be able to produce five times more weaponry than they have now, potentially matching the United States and Russia’s nuclear strength, with worrying implications for global stability.
The United States, Russia and China’s nuclear modernizational programs have created worries that a more dangerous “third nuclear age” of competition is on the horizon.
China is rapidly modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces at a previously unseen level of speed and magnitude.
China believes that Western countries are utilizing issues like human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and international norms to manufacture problems and portray China in a negative light due to their fear of the country’s increasing influence in global politics.
Beijing may believe that the only way to get Western countries to recognize their power and accomplishment is by further strengthening their military capability, which could be achieved through having a larger, more advanced nuclear armory.
It is believed that this would cause other nations to show more restraint when dealing with China, and hold a certain level of respect for the country.
The US Congressional Research Service has gone into greater detail regarding China’s role in nuclear proliferation, particularly its lack of transparency and application of different standards.
As a Nuclear-Weapon State (NWS) party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), China is prohibited from transferring nuclear weapons to any recipient and from aiding, supporting, or encouraging any Non-Nuclear Weapon State in manufacturing or acquiring such weapons.
However, according to the report, despite the Chinese government ceasing direct involvement in nuclear-related proliferation and transfers of entire missile systems recently, Chinese entities have still been engaging in proliferation activities, as there are weaknesses present within China’s export control system.
The report highlights how Chinese businesses have been furnishing missile parts ruled by the MTCR standard to nations such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Pakistan that are involved in proliferation endeavors.
”The United States has maintained economic sanctions on Chinese companies for trading in prohibited items. For example, on November 25th 2020, the State Department placed restrictions on two Chinese entities for sending sensitive technology to Iran’s missile program.
The Department of the Treasury previously imposed sanctions on a Chinese coal company for reportedly utilizing foreign currency generated by North Korean coal sales to acquire “nuclear and missile components” for North Korea, blocking any US assets associated with them and banning any transactions.
Entities within China have participated in illicit behaviors such as money laundering, the provision of illegal financial services, and illegitimate procurement on behalf of WMD programs in Iran and North Korea; a 2018 Department of the Treasury report cites “Chinese entities and individuals” as having facilitated such activities.
A 2017 Department of the Treasury report notes that North Korea employs and keeps up a network of financial representatives, primarily in China, who serve as agents for North Korean financial organizations.
The representatives orchestrate plans, creating phony or shell companies, and handling covert bank accounts to conceal, go around sanctions, and provide funding for North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction and ballistic missile projects.
During a November 2020 address, the then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong declared that China is hosting at least two dozen North Korean WMD and ballistic missile representatives as well as financial institution representatives.
Congress has expressed worries about China’s building of civil nuclear reactors in Pakistan; four are already in use and two more are being constructed, all of which have adequate IAEA safeguards agreements in place.
Despite China being a member of the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG) and their guidelines against such activities in Pakistan, Islamabad’s nuclear weapons facilities are not safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The United States maintains that the initial two nuclear reactor projects, which Beijing and Islamabad finalized before China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2004, are inline with China’s NSG responsibilities.
Pakistan and North Korea are believed to have a mutual defense relationship, which China has typically been mediating and ensuring. As a result of such relationship, North Korea has supplied Rodong Missiles to Pakistan, plus received assistance from Pakistan in developing nuclear technology.
In addition, China has consistently been a staunch supporter of Pakistan, even though Abdul Qadeer Khan was discovered in 2003 to have transferred nuclear knowledge and technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Despite the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions, certain atomic materials provided by Suntech Technology Company Limited of China to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission had been diverted to North Korea.
Recently (December 29), the UK Border Force personnel at London’s Heathrow Airport seized a package that had been sent from Pakistan and contained uranium. Despite Pakistan’s past of proliferation, China has come out in support of Islamabad’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), although some speculate that China is only doing this so as to prevent India from acquiring a place in the 48-member export control regime.
Given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, attention is likely to be focused more closely on China’s involvement with the growing spread of nuclear and missile technology around the world, especially since many consider the war a result of Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons in 1992.
It is theorized that Ukraine would have been better protected from Russian aggression if they maintained a nuclear arsenal after the breakup of the Soviet Union, proving that nuclear weapons are a deterrent for national security and survival.
Therefore, nations that wish to achieve independence and sovereignty may be tempted to create or acquire nuclear weapons. This causes concern as it could provide an opportunity for China to provide support to those countries embracing anti-US policies by acting as a “God Father” figure.