The Hague Code of Conduct and China

Reluctance and opportunities to engage in the control of ballistic missile exports


China is currently the main ballistic missile possessor and spacefaring nation which remains outside the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC). This can be explained by China’s traditional opacity regarding its deployment of strategic missiles, but also its exports of ballistic systems or technologies abroad. This absence is nonetheless problematic for a regime based on voluntary transparency and confidence-building which aims at universality.

While China remains an important supplier of missile technologies, it has over the years officially tried to ensure that these activities were consistent with international regimes and has announced efforts to curb illicit transfers. Moreover, it has been publicly displaying an image of a responsible nuclear power, promoting its policy of no-first use of nuclear weapons and its limited arsenal as proof of its restraint. This positioning would be consistent with a reconsideration of the Chinese position towards the HCoC, a decision that can be encouraged by regular engagement with subscribing states on this topic.


September 2021

Antoine Bondaz, Dan Liu & Emmanuelle Maitre









“A key player possessing the world’s most dynamic ballistic missile development programme has not joined this multilateral transparency and confidencebuilding instrument: China.”

The International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation hereafter referred to as the HCoC or the Code counts 143 subscribing states to date, including the main ballistic and space powers such as the United States (US), Russia, France, India and Japan. Yet a key player possessing the world’s most dynamic ballistic missile development programme has not joined this multilateral transparency and confidencebuilding instrument: China.

Today, China is one of the world’s leading ballistic powers. The country’s progress in this area has been considerable and rapid. In 1955, following the return to China of Qian Xuesen, father of the Chinese ballistic missile programme, the ‘Two Bombs, One Satellite’ deterrence programme was launched. Despite the loss of Soviet scientific and technical support, and the political uncertainties and economic crises caused by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the country tested its first ballistic missile (DF1) in 1960, and then put a satellite into orbit with its Long March 1 launcher in 1970.

Over sixty years later, the imposing military parade of October 2019 allowed China to present new weapons systems including the DF41, a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and the DFZF, a hypersonic glider. China is now one of the main innovators in both the military and civilian spheres and has one of the most diversified ranges of ballistic missiles in the world since, unlike the US and Russia, the country has not been constrained in its development of intermediaterange missiles. In 2018 and 2019, it has carried out more space launches per year than any other country. In 2020, it carried out 39 launches, compared to 44 by the United States and 17 by Russia.1 It is also very active in the launch of ballistic missiles for testing purposes, although these activities do not receive any publicity. The lack of participation of China to the HCoC is therefore a clear weakness for the regime. This paper aims at understanding the rationale for China staying out of the Code and aims at putting forward ways to engage with Beijing to overcome its reluctance to participate in this transparency instrument. It analyses its recent positions taken on arms control and CBMs, as well as recent developments in the field of ballistic missiles. In a second part, it explores the evolution of Chinese policies on the transfer of missile systems or components and the strategic considerations involved. It emphasises specifically the ambiguous relationship between China and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

This paper concludes by a renewed call to engage with China to show the benefits of transparency measures in the field of ballistic systems, whether it involves sales to partners or the deployment and testing of longrange systems. The participation of Chinese experts to recent activities on the HCoC organised by the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS) on behalf of the European Union is a hopeful sign of a shared willingness to pursue this dialogue. […]

Click here to download the paper

1 Stephen Clark, ‘U.S. companies, led by SpaceX, launched more than any other country in 2020,’ Spaceflight Now, 5 January 2021.

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