AS the United States and Russia walk together down the path of deep arms cuts, China is becoming an increasingly important player in the world's nuclear and security affairs.
With the demise of the old Soviet military-industrial complex, China has emerged as the supplier of missiles and clandestine nuclear material that the US worries most about. At the same time, Chinese leaders have made noises about going along with some global arms-export guidelines. They may be just as concerned as US officials are about North Korea's nuclear program.
It is not yet clear whether China will be a major covert source of trouble in the years ahead or will join in efforts to halt weapons proliferation and preserve stability worldwide. The faction-ridden Chinese security establishment makes predictions all the more difficult.
"The contradictory evidence indicates both positive and negative trends, and it is possible that the issue will not be decided until the power struggle over the succession to Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, is completed," concludes an upcoming journal article by Richard Fieldhouse, an ex-Natural Resources Defense Council specialist now working in Congress.
One measure of China's changed role is that it has taken over the Soviet Union's spot as the country least friendly to the West that is also capable of targeting it with nuclear weapons.
That doesn't mean the scale of the Chinese arsenal is similar to that of the former USSR. According to a new National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study, China has only about 10 missiles, each with one warhead, that are capable of reaching Western Europe or North America.
Overall, the Chinese maintain a relatively small stock of nuclear weapons, with 252 to 325 warheads, says the NRDC. The nuclear force is heavily weighted towards medium-range ballistic missiles that can't reach farther than Asia. As of this year, China had conducted 37 known nuclear tests - the latest being a one-megaton blast in May.
The first developing country to acquire the bomb, China has in recent years been a source of material and know-how for other developing nations with their own nuclear programs. On proliferation, "the Chinese have a rather poor record throughout the 1980s," says Stan Norris, an NRDC senior researcher.
China reportedly helped Pakistan with its uranium-enrichment facilities and gave it a detailed bomb design. It has sold nuclear material to Argentina and South Africa, among others. Last year the Chinese admitted supplying a research reactor to Algeria.
China has also been a prime supplier for third-world nations interested in ballistic missiles, another weapons technology the West wants to keep out of the wrong hands. The Chinese secretly sold medium-range missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1987, and in recent years have been trying to sell similar weapons to Syria, Iran, and Libya, among others.
There are signs of a change in Chinese attitude, though. In March, under Western pressure, China finally agreed in writing to abide by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Early this year the Chinese also signed up as a member of the international Missle Technology Control Regime.
How Chinese officials intend to interpret their adherence to these treaties is another question. Will they claim preexisting contracts are exempt, for instance?
In another area of international weapons control, the US- sponsored Big 5 talks aimed at curbing arms sales to the Middle East, China has resisted an agreement to exchange data on arms sales to the region before they are actually shipped. And China refuses to agree to a ban on Middle East missile sales.
In terms of ability to deliver destruction, "the Chinese have argued vociferously that there is no difference between a Scud-C missile and an F-16," says a US official.
In late June, the US Department of Commerce issued a list of foreign missile programs that US firms are prohibited from assisting in any form. Included were China's M series of surface-to-surface missiles, as well as the CSS-2 ballistic missile - the model reportedly provided to Saudi Arabia.
One explanation for China's behavior on weapons proliferation may be the fragmented nature of Chinese political power. Civilian Chinese officials may want sales of sensitive arms stopped, so that relations with the West can improve. But on this issue, factions within the Chinese military can be a law unto themselves - particularly within the two major Chinese weapons-export corporations, New Era and Poly Technologies.
"In most cases Chinese foreign-ministry officials can speak with authority only for the ministry, not for Poly Technologies or New Era, and not for China as a whole," concludes Stanford researcher John Lewis in an article last year in the journal International Security. Connections are one explanation for this independence. As of last year, the head of Poly Technologies was Deng Xiaoping's son-in-law.
According to Dr. Lewis, the foreign ministry in fact protested the CSS-2 missile sale to Saudi Arabia, which was arranged by Poly Technologies. The matter came before Mr. Deng. Told that the deal was worth $2 billion, he replied that the amount was "not little."
"The ministry lost the argument," according to Lewis.