China's evolving position towards the ATT5 February 2013
Ms Yun He is a Fulbright Fellow at Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and a PhD candidate at Tsinghua University, Beijing. Her current research includes the Sino-Vietnamese War and conventional and strategic arms control with a special focus on the stability-instability paradox.
China's evolving position towards the ATT
In a historic vote at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly First Committee on 7 November, Member States passed Resolution L.11 in favour of finalising the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) through negotiations at the upcoming second diplomatic conference on 18-28 March 2013. China voted in favour of this resolution, signalling that it may play a more constructive role in this potential final negotiation of the ATT. Reviewing China’s policy statements on the ATT from 2010 through 2012 reveals a clear shift in China’s view of regulating the international conventional arms trade.
Timing of the conclusion of ATT
In 2010 and 2011 China viewed the conclusion of ATT as a very gradual process. For example, the Chinese Ambassador of Disarmament Affairs, Mr Wang Qun, stated China’s position at the General Debate of the 65th and 66th Sessions of UN General Assembly as “The negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty should proceed step by step and in an open, transparent and consensual manner.” Beginning in 2012, China dropped the term “step and step”, signalling that China shares the view that the ATT is coming to its final phase of negotiation and agreement may soon be reached.
Scope of ATT
China initially resisted including small arms and light weapons (SALW) and ammunition in the treaty, but this has changed. In China’s previous policy statements, it made clear that the scope of the ATT should conform to the seven major categories of weapons under the UN registry of Conventional Arms, which excludes SALW and ammunition. However, in the July conference in New York, China raised no objection to including SALW and ammunition in the treaty. On the final day of negotiations, after airing regret over the failure of the conference to achieve a conclusion, the Chinese delegation reportedly voiced its support for the draft paper as a good basis for future work. Furthermore, the delegation called on other states to show flexibility. China’s new position gives much more flexibility on the final acceptable scope of weapons to be covered by ATT.
Importance of the ATT
At first China held reservations about the value of an ATT. One reason is that from China’s perspective, while combating illegal arms transfers can help reduce conflict and violence, in the long term, only reducing poverty and developing a nation’s economy could help “eliminate the breeding ground for illicit transfer of SALW from its root.” China placed more emphasis on development than an international mechanism to regulate the arms trade itself. But this has also changed. In China’s later statement on the ATT, economic development was quietly dropped; the focus began to centre solely on regulating the arms trade itself. China’s position changed from “[sharing] the view that the international community should take proper measures to regulate relevant arms trade and combat illicit arms trafficking”, to “[subscribing] itself to international efforts to adopt proper measures to regulate relevant arms trade and combat illicit arms trafficking”, to “China supports the international efforts in combating illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.” China also attached greater importance to the ATT, believing that “it is essential to conclude an ATT for regulating the international arms trade”.
Possible reasons behind China’s policy changes
China’s shift towards concluding the ATT at an earlier date with more flexibility and importance attached to the treaty itself may be the result of several factors.
First, China has a record of collaborating with arms control efforts that garner broad international support even when there has been strong initial hesitation with regards to some of its aspects. For instance, China held reservations about the conclusion of a Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its verification mechanism. However, once China saw the importance and popularity of such a treaty, it signed and accepted all of its verification mechanisms. Today, a quarter of the CWC related inspection takes place in China. This shows China's flexibility and willingness to cooperate in the arms control process provided there is enough momentum.
Second, the illicit transfer of arms affects China’s overseas interests, especially in areas of Africa, where armed kidnapping of and harm to Chinese citizens has become increasingly common. As such, China is more open to supporting international initiatives that may reduce such threats.
Third, upon closer examination, certain arguments against concluding the ATT no longer seem valid. For example, some arms control experts used to think that there is strong economic incentive to exclude ammunition from the scope of ATT. But looking more closely, China’s sales of munitions do not actually bring profits, whereas arms-induced instability does far more damage to China’s overseas business interests.
Fourth, and perhaps most fundamentally, China through its own experience has a unique understanding of the important connection between guns, stability, and economic development. For the past twenty years China experienced an unequivocal period of economic growth fuelled by the inflow of foreign direct investment and thriving domestic entrepreneurship. Although many factors contributed to this economic miracle, strong gun control has certainly been very helpful in maintaining a relatively stable and peaceful Chinese society that is conducive to strong economic performance and the attraction of foreign investment. Because of this environment, China understands why it is important to regulate the flow of arms in order to develop the economy and sympathises with the need for a treaty regulating the illicit transfer of arms to unstable areas.
From its initial reluctance to meaningfully support the treaty’s concluding process, China’s position towards the ATT has become increasingly more constructive. It is foreseeable that China will continue its constructive position in the next diplomatic conference in March.
 ‘Statement by H. E. Mr Wang Qun, ambassador for Disarmament Affair of China, at the General Debate of the First Committee of the 66th session of UNGA’, 7 October 2011. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zzjg/jks/jkxw/t865572.htm
 ‘Statement by Kang Yong, Deputy Direct General of Chinese Delegation on ATT PrepCom II’, 28 February 2011. http://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/ATTPrepCom/Documents/Statements-MS/PrepCom2/20110228/20110228China-C.pdf
 China only stated that “the scope of the ATT should be defined properly by covering as a priority those conventional arms that have been clearly defined internationally and accepted universally.” ‘Statement by the Chinese delegation at the General Debate of United Nations Conferences on the Arms Trade Treaty’, 9 July 2012. http://www.un.org/disarmament/ATT/statements/docs/20120709/20120706_China_E.pdf
 This is illustrated in the statement: “The history of arms control treaty negotiation has shown that, to achieve a desired final outcome by consensus, all parties should move toward the same direction by showing full cooperation and flexibility…” See ‘Statement by the Chinese Delegation at the General Debate of United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty’, 9 July 2012. http://www.un.org/disarmament/ATT/statements/docs/20120709/20120706_China_E.pdf
 ‘Statement by H.E. Li Baodong, Ambassador at UNSC open debate on "The Impact of Illegal Sales and Transfers of Arms on the Peace and Security of Central Africa"’, 19 March 2010, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_chn/wjdt_611265/zwbd_611281/t674182.shtml;
‘Statement by Chinese delegation Representative Mr Zhang Jun'an at the Thematic Discussion of the First Committee of the 65th session of UNGA’, 19 October 2010, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_chn/wjb_602314/zzjg_602420/jks_603668/fywj_603672/t772776.shtml
 ‘Statement by H.E. Ambassador Mr Wang Qun, Head of the Chinese Delegation at the General Debate of the First Committee of the 65th Session of United Nations General Assembly’, 7 October 2010. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zzjg/jks/kjfywj/t759455.htm
 ‘Statement by H. E. Mr Wang Qun, Ambassador for Disarmament Affair of China, at the General Debate of the First Committee of the 66th Session of UNGA’, 7 October 2011. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zzjg/jks/jkxw/t865572.htm
 ‘Statement by the Chinese delegation at the General Debate of United Nations Conferences on the Arms Trade Treaty’, 9 July 2012. http://www.un.org/disarmament/ATT/statements/docs/20120709/20120706_China_E.pdf
“From its initial reluctance to meaningfully support the treaty’s concluding process, China’s position towards the ATT has become increasingly more constructive.”Ms He Yun