Any relief from the burgeoning nuclear threats posed by North Korea, Pakistan and Iran must first require the dispatch of a common core threat: China’s policy of providing direct and indirect assistance to make each a nuclear missile state.

North Korea’s latest, 15 April 2017, military parade provided a new round of evidence of China’s overt support for Pyongyang’s nuclear missile capabilities. China has been assisting North Korean missile capabilities since the 1970s, but after President George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, China reacted by initiating the “Six Party Talks” to stall any military action and began to arm Pyongyang with a new generation of weapons.

This program has now advanced to assisting North Korea’s near-term progression from liquid-fuelled larger missiles like the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), to a new solid-fuelled ICBM. Liquid-fuel missiles require a lengthy period to load their fuel, in which they are vulnerable to attack, whereas solid-fuelled missiles are ready to fire almost immediately. In the 15 April parade, North Korea displayed its KN-11 submarine launched solid-fuelled ballistic missile and its slightly larger tube cold-launched land-based Pukguksong-2 solid-fuel medium range ballistic missile (MRBM). It also displayed indications of two future solid-fuel missiles, a new land-based MRBM and a new large solid-fuelled ICBM.

But China gives North Korea liquid and solid-fuelled ICBMs vital mobility; both use a large 16-wheel China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) transporter erector launcher (TEL). China transferred about 8 of these sophisticated vehicles to North Korea in 2011 and they appeared in the 15 April parade, carrying a new large cold-launch missile tube similar in size to the latest Chinese and Russian mobile solid-fuelled ICBMs. 

China may not have transferred more 16-wheel TELs since 2012, but an indicator this is a deliberate Chinese policy to aid North Korea’s missiles is further illustrated by the 2013 Tokjung Truck Joint Venture Company with the China National Heavy Duty Truck Group, or “Sinotruk”. These trucks are assembled from parts made in China. In the latest parade, a truck cab derived from a Sinotruk A7 tractor-trailer cab, tows the new North Korean solid fuel MRBM that looks much like the early Chinese DF-21 MRBM. This means that the Sinotruk joint venture may be able to produce a larger tractor-trailer TEL for the new large solid-fuelled ICBM, like China’s first DF-31 solid-fuel ICBM. 

In addition, Sinotruk chassis are used to transport a new 300mm precision guided artillery rocket first revealed in 2015 and to tow the KN-11 in the most recent parade. Sinotruk officials have stated that they have no control over whether North Korea uses their trucks for military purposes. This is not credible. If China had wanted to comply with longstanding United Nations sanctions against helping North Korea’s missile program, it would have closed the Sinotruk joint venture and halted other Sinotruk sales as well. 

China also provides missile technology and large TELs to Pakistan to support its nuclear missile program. In its 23 March 2016 military parade, Pakistan’s Shaheen-III nuclear armed solid-fuel MRBM was carried by a slightly different version of the same CASIC 16-wheel TEL transferred to North Korea in 2011. But should China wish to conceal this form assistance, it can now prompt the Sinotruk Joint Venture to manufacture tractor-trailer type TELs for Pakistan’s future large nuclear missiles.

Pakistan has had a longstanding nuclear and missile technology relationship with North Korea, to include the sharing of liquid fuel missile technology and nuclear warhead designs, and there should be concern about future cooperation. Pakistan does not yet have large cold-launch missile tube technology, which North Korea may soon develop. These tubes ease the storage of large solid-fuel ballistic missiles and provide a relatively safe means of launching such missiles. 

North Korea may not yet have Pakistan’s technology for equipping missiles with multiple warheads. On 23 January 2017, Pakistan tested its ABABEEL missile, a Shaheen-II/III MRBM equipped with multiple warheads. Indian sources familiar with this test confirmed that it lofted three warheads, but were sceptical that it achieved a sufficient level of accuracy. These sources also conclude that China was the likely source for this multiple warhead technology. 

This would be logical, given that most of Pakistan’s solid fuel missile technology comes from China. China would want a multiple warhead capability to give Pakistan’s missiles a greater chance of surviving India’s future missile interceptors. Beijing would also approve of North Korea’s acquiring multiple warhead technology to increase its ability to survive US missile defences.

So, might there be future commerce between Pakistan and North Korea, exchanging the latter’s truck-TEL and cold-launch missile tube technology for the former’s multiple warhead technology? This would allow both to deploy their larger solid-fuel ballistic missiles with speed and greater safety and help North Korea’s new large solid-fuel ICBMs to much sooner achieve a multiple warhead capability.

China apparently rejects any notion that it is responsible for helping to create these new nuclear missile threats. When asked about its large TEL transfer to North Korea back in 2012, China reportedly told Washington this transfer was a “mistake”. Chinese officials thought the North Koreans would use TELs designed for missiles to instead transport lumber. At that time, the Barack Obama administration did not want to make a public issue of China’s blatant proliferation. 

What has China done to reward such US discretion? It has turned the US deployment to South Korea of the defensive Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interceptor into a crisis in China-South Korea relations. It seems that South Koreans are not allowed to be defended from the North Korean nuclear missiles that China helped to make possible.

But by continuing to let China get away with its direct and indirect assistance for the nuclear missile capabilities of North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, it can be said that the greater community of democracies are behaving in a suicidal manner. This is unacceptable; Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and Seoul should condemn China’s proliferation and sanction the Chinese companies directly involved. The US and its Northeast Asian allies need to increase their missile defence investments and consider the re-deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons to deter Pyongyang. 

President Donald Trump appears to understand that he has little time to contain or reverse North Korea’s nuclear missile threat. His recent deployment to the region of aircraft carrier battle groups and cruise missile submarines underscores US frustration. Trump also appears to expect real support from China, and it should happen. But to get real results from Beijing, he is going to have to overcome his predecessor’s fear of Chinese truculence for telling the truth: China can only be a real help once it stops contributing to the threat. If China refuses to halt its proliferation, then it must be compelled to do so. 

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.