BEIJING — As China Wednesday hosts the first talks in six months on North Korea's nuclear bid, Beijing's new, younger leaders are backing a significant policy change on the development of weapons of mass destruction.
The new doctrine, which has come into sharp relief between these two rounds of talks, creates implicit pressure on North Korea to reverse its nuclear program. It also brings China closer to a traditional Western "arms control" position and closer to those in the Bush administration who want to prohibit "rogue" states from acquiring nuclear weapons.
For decades in the UN and in international forums China held that states had the right to develop whatever self-defense methods they chose. The principle originated in a socialist theory of equality among states, and meshed with China's efforts dating to the 1950s to export revolution to developing countries, particularly strategic allies. The footprints of that policy were embarrassingly on display this month - amid evidence that China assisted Pakistan's nuclear program, and after Chinese language instructions for atomic weapons parts and designs were found in Libya. US officials still complain that Chinese export controls of weapons technology are ill-enforced.
Yet as Beijing tackles the problem of plutonium and suspected enriched uranium programs across the Yalu River in North Korea, and as it contemplates a circle of neighbors with nuclear capability, it is shifting its policy. In semiofficial publications, in a little noticed white paper on nonproliferation late last year, and in interviews with senior Beijing sources conducted for this report, sources say the old policy of indifference, or tacit official acquiescence of sensitive technology sales by Chinese firms to states desiring a nuclear card, are ending.
"China is moving toward a direction of nonproliferation," argues Jin Lin Bo, Asia director of the China Institute of International Studies, an influential government think tank. "Our national goals are different from 30 years ago, when we did not allow any links to Western civilization. In the past, we treated proliferation as someone else's business, having nothing to do with China. Or we saw it through an anti-US lens. Now we see it as part of our security, and a desire to be a wealthy state acceptable to others."
Factors involved in the new thinking in China, experts say, include China's desire to present a mainstream international image that will enhance its attractiveness as a haven for investment.
An unusually full treatment in a magazine called Oriental Outlook - published by Xinhua, China's official news service - describes how the Chinese people have been ignoring the fact that China is now "surrounded by nuclear states," including Russia, India, and Pakistan. Taiwan has long held blueprints for nuclear weapons, and should North Korea collapse and unify, there would be a substantially stronger regional rival right on China's border. Japanese military leaders have in recent years broken an old taboo on discussing the possibility of nuclear accession.
Other factors involved in China's new "arms control" focus have to do with the atmosphere created by Libya's renunciation of a nuclear threat, the US invasion of Iraq following UN weapons inspections, and the revelations in Pakistan of a network of nuclear exports by Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb. Some Chinese strategists worry about nuclear terrorism, with the potential of an Al Qaeda-like cell showing up, for example, in the far west Xinjiang region.
A fundamental shift by China means the Kim Jong Il regime may not in the long run count on protection from Beijing, its historic ally. This week's six-party talks, the third time China has hosted a multilateral forum since April, will be comprised of the US, Russia, North and South Korea, China, and Japan. The talks were grudgingly agreed to by China last spring after the US refused to meet one-on-one with North Korea amid a crisis that included the eviction of UN monitors from a North Korean nuclear reactor site, and the potential reprocessing of weapons-grade plutonium fuel rods.
Tensions started in the fall of 2002 after US envoy James Kelly presented evidence in Pyongyang of a secret enriched uranium program and North Korea admitted to it, according to Kelly and two US officials present.
US officials Monday indicated that a signal of progress this week would be an admission by North Korea to having an enriched uranium program. Japan's Kyodo news service Monday reported that North Korea may agree this week to a complete dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction programs. US officials are skeptical, however.
One palpable indicator of a change in China's policy came last week after the visit here of John Bolton, US undersecretary of State for arms control and a leading Bush team hawk. Mr. Bolton, known to advocate "regime change," is deeply disliked in Pyongyang. Last summer he made headlines with a speech in Seoul that described the state of North Korea as a "hellish nightmare" for its system of concentration camps and lack of food and care for ordinary people.
In Beijing, Bolton emerged from meetings in an upbeat comport, describing a "commitment at the top levels of the Chinese government to prevent the spread" of nuclear weapons.
"Bolton left Beijing with kind words, if you can believe that," argues a specialist at a Pentagon-funded think tank in the US. "At least for now, the Chinese are saying the kind of things he wants to hear."
One high-level source here close to the Foreign Ministry was asked if leaders like President Hu Jintao, influential Standing Committee member Zheng Qinhong, and six-party talks negotiator Wang Yi agreed with a nonproliferation doctrine. "These leaders are moving in that direction. At a minimum," he responded.
On Feb. 12, the Chinese ambassador to the disarmament conference in Geneva stated that China was committed to battling proliferation, and he referenced a Dec. 3, 2003 white paper that offers precise details of China's treaties restricting exports on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
"Nonproliferation is the goal, especially for the new generation of leaders like Hu Jintao," says Zhang Lian Gui of the Communist Central Party School in Beijing. "For China to try and create this image is a necessity. Nonproliferation is something not avoidable for China in this time."