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China Worries About 'Mistakes' in Anti-Proliferation Plans

  • Patrick Goodenough Pacific Rim Bureau Chief
  • 2003 26 Sep
China Worries About 'Mistakes' in Anti-Proliferation Plans
Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Beijing's defense leadership has expressed concern that the U.S.-led, multinational plan to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction could increase tensions if "mistakes" are made.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill, on an official visit to China, said in talks with Defense Minister Gen. Cao Gangchuan and People's Liberation Army leaders differences had been aired over the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

Announced by President Bush last May, the PSI is designed to prevent rogue states or terrorists from transferring or acquiring biological, nuclear or chemical weapons and related items.

Eleven countries - the U.S., Britain, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Portugal - have so far signed up, and the first stop-and-search exercises took place off the Australian coast earlier this month.

U.S. officials have said that North Korea and Iran, both on the State Department's list of terror-sponsors, are the countries most likely to be targeted by the PSI in the short-term.

North Korea claims to have already developed nuclear weapons, and it has threatened to build more and to export them, while in Iran inspectors have found traces of highly-enriched uranium, and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog has given Tehran an Oct. 31 deadline to prove that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

Pyongyang responded to the recent joint exercises by calling them "reckless provocations" and warning that if actual interceptions went ahead, it could lead to "nuclear war."

China is North Korea's closest ally, and it has pushed for a diplomatic solution to the current nuclear standoff, opposing any punitive steps by the U.S. or international community against its Stalinist neighbor.

Hill said in a press conference in Beijing he had spoken to the Chinese about the PSI and the fact that it was "not specifically aimed at North Korea," pointing out that the initiative's next scheduled exercises are to take place in Europe.

He said China shared Australia's opposition to WMD proliferation, but there were differences over how to combat it.

"China is tending to be more relying on the existing mechanisms, in particular the various non-proliferation agreements and the regimes that support them," he said.

"I expressed the view that Australia is concerned that there may be transfer of such weapons or their precursors - notwithstanding the existing international security regime - and that once the weapons are transferred, how difficult it is then to effectively address the problem."

Hill said the Chinese had also voiced concerns that "mistakes might be made and that the mistakes might lead to further destabilization."

"I said I understood that point, and that's why part of this initiative is very much to explore whether you could achieve sufficient intelligence-sharing to minimize that chance."

Several PSI members have spoken of the importance of China being brought onboard the initiative, but Hill said the Chinese had "reservations ... in relation to interdiction being a tool that might legitimately be used."

Russia, which also has historic ties to North Korea, is another country the U.S. hopes will join the interdiction initiative.

At an international non-proliferation conference in Moscow last weekend, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow urged Russia to become a partner in anti-proliferation efforts, including the PSI.

"This innovative, proactive approach is both an example of my government's multilateral approach to non-proliferation and a bold step toward stopping proliferators," he said.

Vershbow argued that such "new tools" were necessary to stop the spread of dangerous weapons by countries that "may be determined to circumvent even the tightest regime."

At the U.N. General Assembly this week, President Bush called for a resolution that would "criminalize" WMD proliferation.

See earlier stories:
North Korea Angered by Maritime Interception Drill (Sept. 15, 2003)
Countries Agree to Intercept Suspected Weapons of Mass Destruction (Sept. 5, 2003)

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