Nuclear Technology & the Developing World

In a globalizing world economy, stronger proliferation controls are in everyone's best interests

by Kathleen Walsh

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The early 21st century has magnified the dangers posed by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Nonetheless, cooperative efforts to thwart this trade have grown considerably more difficult and the challenges more complicated. The ubiquitous nature of dual-use technology, the application of terrorist tactics for mass destruction on 9/11, the emergence of a more unilateralist US foreign policy, and the world's ever-expanding economic relations have all made more arduous the task of stemming proliferation of WMD, their precursors, and delivery systems.

All of these challenges have been highlighted in recent years, but it is the last of these -the changing nature of the global economy- that is perhaps least analyzed but also most essential to improving international cooperation on nonproliferation.

Many of today's proliferation concerns are not new phenomena. Rather, they are familiar problems exacerbated by accelerating levels of international trade and investment. For example, controlling sensitive exports has become more complicated as officials, industry leaders, and nonproliferation experts must struggle simultaneously to find ways to ensure the flow of exports to legitimate buyers and supply chain partners who increasingly span the globe.

Similarly, competitive enterprises today place a premium on rapid delivery and the speed of transactions. This in turn has increased pressures placed on officials around the world to reduce the time they spend evaluating each licensing decision, even as these assessments become more difficult as global investors move deeper into the developing world.

Furthermore, the emergence of developing economies as second-tier suppliers with the potential to transship critically sensitive technologies to third parties is another complicating factor and a consequence of the globalizing economy. Science, technology, and industry research and development activities with dual-use applications are also becoming increasingly international endeavors, facilitated through air travel, industry outsourcing, and intangible channels of communication such as the Internet.

Simply put, as international borders become more porous as a result of free-trade arrangements, opportunities for proliferators multiply as well. Although the collection of information and intelligence to aid nonproliferation has become easier in a more open and transparent trade environment, efforts to stem proliferation have become more difficult as the means of acquiring and transporting nuclear and other WMD-related technologies have also multiplied. The recent uncovering of A.Q. Khan's vast international nuclear proliferation network and the off-the-shelf uranium enrichment technology intercepted on its way to Libya are clear evidence of the challenges that lie ahead.

As these examples suggest, existing nonproliferation tools and export control mechanisms are not up to the task of dealing with new global economic realities. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei voiced this concern recently at the Asia-Pacific Conference on Nuclear Safeguards and Security meeting in Sydney, Australia. As he noted, "The relative ease with which a multinational illicit network could be set up and operated demonstrates clearly the inadequacy of the present export control system." Nor is it likely -absent substantial support from authorities in developing countries around the globe- that all of today's new proliferation channels can be effectively plugged.

What is needed, therefore (and has long been recognized as essential by nonproliferation advocates) is a universal norm supporting nonproliferation. But how can this goal be achieved? As with much of today's discussion about globalization, the answer may lie in China.

It is no longer access to advanced technology that is of primary concern. Rather, it is increasingly the result of such access in a globalizing economy that should concern developing States.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) has in recent years instituted wholesale reform of its export control policies, regulations, and licensing system. What is significant about these reforms is that they are being motivated in large part by economic considerations - and are not merely in response to foreign export controls and sanctions placed on China's import of some sensitive technologies. Rather, leaders in Beijing have realized that in today's new global security and economic environment, China will be unable to achieve its aspiration of becoming a major developer and global exporter of advanced technologies unless the PRC has in place a more effective and comprehensive export control system. In other words, a credible proliferation control system is viewed in Beijing as a prerequisite to China becoming a high-tech economy.

In an age when information technology (IT) is spreading worldwide and driving commercial development, scientific advances, and military modernization, China's situation, though magnified, is hardly unique. Thus, this economic dynamic presents a vital opportunity for the international community to foster a new non-proliferation norm linking the interests of both developed and developing economies. In other words, it is no longer access to advanced technology that is of primary concern (as demonstrated by the growing number of nuclear-capable States). Rather, it is increasingly the result of such access in a globalizing economy that should concern developing states.

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