What Makes a Great Power Like China So Casual About Aiding and Abetting Nuclear Proliferation?

I have a friend who, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, worked with Russians on securing their nuclear weapons. To this day, the casualness she encountered about their loose nukes continues to puzzle her. It’s as if they didn’t take seriously or care about the consequences of a nuclear explosion on their own soil.

That was brought home to me yet again by an article in the Washington Post by John Pomfret that begins: “The Obama administration has concluded that” in violation of recent United Nations sanctions, Chinese firms and banks “are helping Iran to improve its missile technology and develop nuclear weapons, and has asked China to stop such activity.”

The Chinese government, which didn’t authorize these deals, has agreed, whether perfunctorily or not, to investigate. For its part, the United States, because of differences over the value of Chinese currency, among other things, is reluctant to press China on the issue.

Still, writes Pomfret, “China’s involvement in Iran’s energy sector and the role that some of its companies are believed to be playing in Tehran’s military modernization could disrupt U.S.-Chinese relations.” In fact, on over 60 occasions the U.S. government banned American companies from doing business “with Chinese companies during President George W. Bush’s first term, generally regarding dealing with Iran.”

While it’s thought that China has come to understand “that selling missile and nuclear weapons-technology, especially to neighbors such as North Korea, was a bad idea” it must be remembered that China is also “generally believed to have supplied Pakistan with a blueprint for a nuclear weapon in the 1970s.”

As one who’s as skeptical of sanctions as he is of recent tepid U.S. disarmament initiatives such as new START, I acknowledge that the United States at least pays lip service to disarmament. Of course, it’s much keener on nonproliferation — preventing states presently without them from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons — which we pretend isn’t contingent, as required by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, on disarmament by the nuclear powers.

Developing nations, though, blinded by the prestige and the upgrade to national security that they anticipate from nuclear weapons, tend, like the Russians, to neglect one small detail — that they too can be destroyed in a nuclear attack. Or, out of nationalistic or religious zeal, they don’t care. (Please hold your calls and letters accusing me of claiming that the developing world, especially Muslims, doesn’t value human life!)

But when a large power such as China exhibits a willingness to abet or fail to prevent proliferation, it sends the message that helping the economy grow is worth the risks that a new nuclear state poses, to itself as well. If China thinks that, because it’s helping it develop nuclear energy and/or weapons, it can bend a state like Iran to its will, it’s kidding itself.

On an unconscious level, one can’t help but wonder if the seeming casualness of a nuclear power about proliferation is evidence of a deep-seated fatalism about the continuation of life on earth. But neither is the United States — with recent polls indicating the proliferation (sorry, couldn’t resist) of those who believe that the world will end in an Apocalypse — immune to that kind of thinking.