Jeffrey LewisDan Blumenthal: China Marketing to the Mullahs?

Dan Blumenthal is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. That is a fact.

Here are a few more facts about Blumenthal’s latest screed, “Providing Arms: China and the Middle East”, which appears in Daniel Pipes’ right-wing rag, the Middle East Quarterly.

Blumenthal’s article starts strong—which is to say that it begins with a falsifiable thesis statement:

Chinese policy in the Middle East has grown more active over the past decade. … Rather than distance itself from these promoters of jihad, the Chinese government has gambled that embracing Iran and Saudi Arabia in lucrative oil and weapons deals will buy it some protection from their export of political Islam.

Have Chinese weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and Iran increased over the past decade?

No, at least not according to the most recent statistical information available from the State Department, which suggests that Chinese arms sales to the Middle East as a region declined over the most recent reporting period (1989-1999).

Chinese and US Arms Exports to the Middle East, 1989-1999 (US$ Billion)

Country 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
China 2.3 1.9 0.6 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.3 0.4
USA 17.3 21.9 26.2 25.1 25.4 22.2 22.9 22.8 31.7 27 33

World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (WMEAT) (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 6 February 2003). Note: A ” – ” indicates exports between $3 and $50 M dollars.

Blumenthal doesn’t rely on statistics; instead he cites four pieces of anecdotal evidence: three types of arms sales to Iran and one sale to Saudi Arabia. Most are false and no sales occurred after 1997. We report, you decide … right?

Here are the facts.

1. “Since the mid-1980s, China has sold Iran, in whole or in parts, different variants of anti-ship cruise missiles such as the Silkworm (HY-2), the C-801, and the C-802. While Beijing was initially happy with the hard currency proceeds of such sales, the Chinese government’s motivations have expanded. … Chinese efforts to bolster the Islamic Republic’s anti-ship missile capability continue.”

China delivered about 320 total Silkworm, C-801 and C-802 cruise missiles between 1988-1996 to the Middle East (likely Iran).

After Iran test fired a C-801 cruise missile in January 1996, the United States sought and recieved assurances that China would stop selling anti-ship missiles to China in October 1997. The CIA reports that China “apparently has halted C-801/C-802 anti-ship cruise missile sales to Iran as promised in late 1997.”

It is hard to understand how “Chinese efforts to bolster the Islamic Republic’s anti-ship missile capability continue.” Rather, it would seem that Chinese efforts stopped after 1997.

2. “The Chinese government has sold Iran surface-to-surface cruise missiles and provided assistance in the development of long-range ballistic missiles.”

First, the IC concludes that China doesn’t possess Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM). China may have marketed a land-based version of the C-802 anti-ship missile.

Second, although Chinese firms appear to have provided assistance to the Iranian ballistic missile program, the Chinese government has not.

The CIA specifically notes that continuing Chinese assistance to iran is occurring by Chinese “entities.” The distinction matters. Whereas Blumenthal blames the “government” to support his thesis that the sales are part of a coordinated policy of “marketing to the mullahs,” the CIA reports he cites describes the problem as one of poor enforcement of export control laws:

Although Beijing has taken some steps to educate firms and individuals on the new missile-related export regulations—offering its first national training course on Chinese export controls in February 2003—Chinese entities continued to work with Pakistan and Iran on ballistic missile-related projects during the first half of 2003.

That point was also made by Assistant Secretary Rademaker in March 2005.

In other words, the problem is one of governance, not geopolitics—a point that many Chinese academics have made in discussing the drafting and implementation of Chinese export control laws.

This is the closest that Blumenthal will approach to an actual fact—but he blows it by specifically citing the “Chinese government” as the source of the ballistic missile assistance.

3. “Beijing has also contributed substantially to Iran’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs despite assurances to Washington that it has ceased such work. Perhaps the most egregious example was the supply of a uranium conversion facility and nuclear power reactors to Iran.”

China agreed to supply Iran with a 20 MW research reactor in 1991, two 300 MW pressurized water reactors in 1992, and a uranium conversion facility in 1994. (NTI has a summary. I went through a decade of Nucleonics Week to confirm their timeline.)

None of these deals were consumated. In October 1992, China canceled the 20 MW reactor deal. Plans to build a uranium conversion facility and the pair of PWRs were suspended and then terminated following Jiang Zemin’s 1997 pledge to end “civil nuclear commerce with Iran after completing two ongoing projects of negligible proliferation concern …”

Blumenthal cites the page 26 of a CIA report to suggest China has violated this pledge.

  • The report is only 12 pages long. There is no page 26, you ninny. (Page 10 mentions some continuing contacts of concern among entities).
  • As for the pledge, previous CIA reports indicate the Chinese government honored the pledge:

China pledged in late 1997 not to engage in any new nuclear cooperation with Iran and to complete work on two remaining nuclear projects—a small research reactor and a zirconium production facility—in a relatively short period of time. During the first half of 1998, Beijing appears to have implemented this pledge. The Intelligence Community will continue to monitor carefully Chinese nuclear cooperation with Iran.

To summarize: All of the evidence that Blumenthal could muster is a trio of never consumated agreements from more than a decade ago. China’s behavior in the interim has been to suspend or cancel these agreements, not expand them.

Here is how the CIA described the behavior of the Chinese goverment:

Over the past several years, Beijing improved its nonproliferation posture through commitments to multilateral arms control regimes, promulgation of export controls, and strengthened oversight mechanisms …

If “Beijing” is “marketing to the mullahs,” it is doing a shitty job.

4. “If oil is one pillar of the Sino-Saudi relationship, proliferation is the other. China has sold Saudi Arabia intermediate range (3000 km) ballistic missiles (CSS-2s) that Riyadh has had trouble acquiring from other sources.”

Check this out for being outright disingenuous: Blumenthal cites the FAS website “accessed Jan. 14, 2005.”

He neglects to note that the sale occurred in 1988.

China has not transfered CSS-2 or any other kind of ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the intervening seventeen years. In fact, China has promulgated new export control laws and expressed a desire to acceed to the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Proliferation as a pillar of the Sino-Saudi relationship? Maybe seventeen years ago.


None of this is to suggest that Chinese export control system is beyond reproach. China still needs to improve enforcement of existing arms control regulations, particularly against so-called “serial proliferators” like NORINCO. After lauding Chinese goverrnment efforts to improve nonproliferation, the CIA notes that “the proliferation behavior of Chinese companies remains of great concern.”

That is a different argument than Blumenthal is making. Contrary to Blumenthal’s paranoid fantasies, China places greater emphasis on maintaining positive relations with the United States than playing power politics games in the Middle East.


  1. RT (History)

    Blumenthal is clearly exaggerating and stretching facts but your hypothesis that Chinese entities’ proliferation is a mere matter of export control problem is nonsense.

    NORICO and other big Chinese proliferating entities are fully state owned and led by PLA bigwigs. Some of the firms are PLA owned as well.

    Why haven’t we heard of any Chinese entity proliferating to Zimbabwe and Granada? It makes logical sense that Chinese entities have been caught proliferating to the likes of Iran and Pakistan because the Chinese government sees strategic advantages in doing so with these nations. With Pakistan, it is to contain India and with Iran, it is to gain access to that nation’s fossil fuel reserves.

    China has learnt over the years that it is much easier to proliferate from within the system than from outside it. Its recent improvements in export control laws can be correlated to China’s desire to be seen as a responsible power and gain access to nuclear reactor tech and other goodies that are only available to NSG and Wassenaar members.

    They know that once they are inside, the consensus based groups will do anything to keep them inside even if they are caught proliferating.

    If the standards require a video of President Hu giving orders to proliferate to Iran to prove government intent, China can proliferate at will without fear of punishment.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Rule Number One for Comments: You’re not allowed to have an opinion unless you do some research. I am thinking about refusing to post comments that don’t include references (except the funny ones).

    Why aren’t there many arms exports to Zimbabwe?

    Funny you should mention that …

    Chinese arms exports over 1997-1999 (the latest figures available from the State Department) to Zimbabwe ($70 M) exceeded arms sales to Saudi Arabai ($ 0 M) but not Iran (a single $400 M sale of aircraft and surface-to-air missiles in 1997) over the same period.

    In fact, Chinese arms sales to the Africa ($ 535 M) exceeded those to the Middle East ($440 M).

    It seems — using your test — I’m right. China tends to sell arms to unimportant places. My friend Logan Wright wrote a very nice article in Armed Forces Journal International on the bureaucratic drive behind arms sales to Africa that documented this dynamic.

    Is NORINCO a PLA-run firm simply executing government policy?

    You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that. A nice primer on the relationship between defense industrial firms and the PLA is: James Mulvenon, Chinese Military Commerce and US National Security (Santa Monica: RAND, July 1997). It’s a little dated now, but still very insightful.

    The CIA, looking at the types of cooperation taking place, and Chinese academics with first hand observations of the bureaucratic process, agree that defense industry firms like NORINCO are genuinely civilian SOEs with their own financial interests and the ability to lobby the leadership.

    You’re simply asserting that none of this could happen without the Hu Jintao’s approval.

    Yet, Beijing is clearly attempting to strengthen government control over these firms. Hence, the CIA reference to “steps to educate firms and individuals on the new missile-related export regulations…”
    If the “Chinese government sees strategic advantages” in continuing to proliferate to countries like Iran and Pakistan, then why did China stop selling cruise missiles and civilian nuclear facilities to Iran?

  3. RT (History)

    I’m in the middle of a go-live for a project and will reply in detail. Firstly I’m not sure who died and appointed the state department or the ACDA as the sole arbiter monitoring global arms sales. Much of China’s trade happens sub rosa.

    But can you answer the following questions:

    1. How come a Chinese nuclear warhead design ended up in Pakistan if the government was not involved in proliferation? Do private people in China control nuclear warheads?

    2. How come fully assembled M-11 missiles landed up in Sargodha, Pakistan given the international concerns with South Asia?

    3. How come China hurriedly signed a deal to sell a nuclear reactor to Pakistan days before its joining the NSG – which prohibits such deals to countries without FSS?

    4. Did you read James A. Baker’s biography and how most of the proliferating firms have top officials who are also bigshots in the CMC? Do you want us to believe that an authoritarian state like China, whose agencies are quick to block websites within hours of publishing unfavorable information, somehow are unable to detect and block nuclear/missile sales to unstable regimes even after being warned?

    China proliferated full missile systems in the 70s and the 80s. Now it can get away with proliferating dual use items and subsystems because its clients like Iran and Pakistan can take care of the rest. A really clever strategy this.

    China knows that in the US, commerce trumps all else. The US non-proliferation laws are written so that the level of evidence needed to prove state involvement is set impossibly high.Even if crystal clear evidence of state involvemnt in some proliferation act turns up, the US has too much invested with China to act against it. What do you think happened to the warhead design [url=]obtained[/url] from Libya that showed Chinese proliferation beyond a shadow of doubt? The US buried it even as it goes after lesser nations.

    Mr. Blumenthal clearly has his own axe to grind, but that doesn’t mean China is a responsbile player. China is a global power and it knows it can proliferate at will and get away with it as long as it is done sub rosa.

    I maybe an asshole with a search engine but I’m not an asshole who tries to cover up proliferation acts by looking away from the obvious. There are many responsbile people in the US and Western government and academia who conclude that Chinese proliferation is more an instrument of state policy than a case of weak export controls.


  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Pakistan is not relevant to this discussion.

    The Chinese government provided substantial assistance to the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, including the delivery of nuclear <a href="

    “>warhead designs in the 1980s — something the State Department suspected in 1983.

    China also sold M-11 missiles, delivering them in 1993.

    That assistance began during a period when China objected to nonproliferation as discriminatory; it has declined as China gradually accepted nonproliferation norms.

    An excellent account of this evolution is: Mingquan Zhu, “The Evolution of China’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy,” The Nonproliferation Review (Winter 1997) 40.

    Chinese adherence to the norm still leaves much to be desired. I agree with the State Department’s Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control and Nonproliferation Agreements and Commitments:

    While we continue to believe that Beijing is seriously prepared to implement its NPT obligations, and has taken steps to do so, given all the available information, the United States remains concerned about China’s compliance with its nuclear nonproliferation commitments.

  5. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Sure, and GWBush is an impeachable felon and massmurdering war criminal who deserves to share a one-bunk cell with Saddam and Slobo. But take it from me, this level of personal, slam-bang namecalling invective dissipates the credibility of your usually superb scholarship and commentary.

  6. John McGlynn (History)

    I have been reading your wonderful blog for about 2 weeks. Aside from the terrific content, one reason I like it is that I thought it was above the fray of gratuitous namecalling and rabid passions seen at other blogs. So echoing Mark Gubrud, I, too, was a little taken aback by the recent choice of words. Please let the facts of someone’s idiocy speak for themselves, and leave out the personal insults. Thanks.

  7. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Ok, ok, ok.

    See if you like this post better.

  8. Stuart Lee (History)

    Got to your blog via . Having grown up in the Far East doesn’t necessarily make me more wiser than others who are experts, but in my uneducated opinion, I think that it’s (or was) all about yuan, yuan, and yuan, as opposed to some coherent policy to cozy up with some nations in the ME.

    Don’t the Chinese have restive ethnic groups themselves out West near the ME? They probably shudder at the thought of some of their technology going into the hands of some of these groups at their frontier provinces. That just makes it more believable that the deals were made to make money as opposed to any political machinations. Just look at the awful amount of business that goes across the straits between PRC and ROC — yuan talks while the gov’t looks the other way.

    My point is that JL is probably on point.

  9. Stephen (History)

    I’ll humbly disagree with McGlynn and Gubrud.

    One of the best things about this blog is the voice of the posters. Their tone is an important component of that construction of voice.

    Tone, as an expression of the speaker’s/writer’s attitude to subject and audience, is what makes writing live, as the writing on this blog does. Diction, or word choice, is a key part of creating that tone.

    Unfortunately, invective, as a rhetorical strategy, currently has a bad name. No one one posting on this blog, though, has even come close to what More and Luther wrote about each other, or to what Milton wrote in his pamphlet wars, or to what Paul wrote in the New Testament regarding the party of the circumcision, for that matter.

    In short, the tone of this blog is mild by any reasonable standard.

    Some topics-the ones addressed on this blog included-are worthy of the most serious attention. Some positions held on those topics-Blumenthal’s included-are worthy of the most serious condemnation.

    When those circumstances, coincide-bring on the invective, I say.

    I think blogs like this one are important because they reveal how passionately real people who are very familiar with the relevant topics feel about recent developments in the fields they know well.

    We all need to hear more of that passion coupled with knowledge, not less, in my opinion.