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The Overlooked Partnership: China-US Cooperation Against Chemical Weapons

Oct 15 , 2013

The Chinese and U.S. governments both welcomed last week’s decision of the Noble Prize Committee to award the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) its annual peace prize. They also supported Syria’s formal accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention the following Monday, when Syria became the 190th States Party to this treaty. The Convention prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of offensive chemical weapons. 

Richard Weitz

Beijing’s support for the OPCW is not new. In November 2010, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi praised the Organization’s “indispensable” role in chemical weapons disarmament and non-proliferation.  China has hosted OPCW seminars designed to counter chemical weapons proliferation in Asia and has provided personal protection suits and other defensive gear to the OPCW and other countries. 

A natural Chinese priority has been to eliminate the chemical weapons shells the Imperial Japanese Army abandoned on China’s territory during and after World War II. Every year scores of Chinese civilians are killed or injured by these weapons. China and Japan only began eliminating these weapons in October 2010, following years of delay.  Hopefully, this previous source of bilateral tension will become a source of cooperation in the future. 

Although Beijing and Washington cooperate on most chemical weapons issues, they differ on some. China and the United States often find themselves on opposing sides in the debate over whether the OPCW should be most concerned about eliminating the chemical weapons inherited from World War II and the Cold War (Beijing’s position) or focus more on the preventing new countries or terrorist groups from obtaining chemical weapons, such as by increasing the OPCW inspections at the increasingly sophisticated chemical industries found in China and other newly industrializing countries (Washington’s view). 

More recently, the two governments took opposing positions on how best to respond to the chemical weapons use in Syria. The United States, backed by its NATO allies, issued Red Lines warning the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons in its civil war. In August, President Barack Obama threatened unilateral military action in response to the major chemical incident Washington attributed to the Syrian government. 

In contrast, the Chinese government joined with Russia in arguing that the rebels rather than the Assad government were responsible for the chemical incidents. Beijing also opposed foreign military intervention and stressed the need to achieve a negotiated settlement that would include elimination of all chemical weapons on Syrian soil. Along with Russia, China reflexively opposes U.S. military intervention without the approval of the UN Security Council, where Beijing has the power to veto such acts. 

In particular, Chinese analysts worry that U.S. military intervention would have spread chaos or terrorism throughout Middle East, a vital source of energy for China, which just became the world’s number one oil importer. The Chinese also join Moscow in rejecting U.S. claims to act in the name of the international community to enforce global norms without UN approval. 

China and Russia held fast during the recent Security Council deliberations until Western governments accepted a resolution that, while legally binding, has no automatic enforcement through sanctions or military force. Instead, another UN Security Council resolution would be needed that explicitly approved such coercive measures. Although wanting stronger terms, the Western governments had already encountered a double Russia-China veto in three of their earlier proposed sanctions resolutions on Syria, and did not welcome a fourth, which would have endangered the Syrian chemical weapons elimination process.  

But China and the United States set aside these differences last week to vote for the UN Security Council resolution that implemented the framework for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons that the Russians and U.S. governments adopted in Geneva in September. At the October 8th session of the OPCW Executive Council, the Chinese government pledged both money and manpower in support of this ambitious elimination mission.  

Looking ahead, China and the United States should work with other countries to encourage all states to join the CWC. Although the Convention has achieved unprecedented membership growth for a major disarmament treaty—with Syria’s entry, 190 countries have joined—several governments of proliferation concern remain outside from the convention. 

Beijing and Washington should initially cooperate to induce Myanmar, whose government is seeking to break out of its international isolation and develop new ties with the West without harming its relations with China, to ratify the convention and become its 191st member. Since China has invited representatives from the government of Myanmar, which signed the CWC in 1993 but has not ratified the treaty, to attend OPCW-sponsored workshops on its territory, Beijing already has official channels to pursue this goal.  

When circumstances improve, China and Russia could also profitably collude to induce North Korea, which unlike Burma has not signed the CWC and has rejected OPCW efforts to initiate dialogue on the issue, to eliminate its massive chemical weapons stockpile and join the Convention. Their hard-won success in Syria, until recently considered to be one of the strongest holdout states along with North Korea, suggests the value of joint planning for such a bright future even now.

Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.

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