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In the developing relationship between China and the United States, the spotlight has been on official visits, trade and exchanges, and on the issues surrounding a possible normalization of relations. However, many crucial questions concerning relations between the two countries have received less public attention; they concern military-security and arms control issues, which involve fundamental questions of war or peace.
Today the United States and China have no formal military relationship. There are no explicit links, or negotiations, between Washington and Peking on bilateral military problems or arms control. Nevertheless a security relationship does exist, implicitly, as it must between any two great powers whose interests and policies intersect. Moreover, in the future, issues involving military security and arms control will have to be dealt with more explicitly and directly.
The most fundamental change in relations between the United States and China in recent years has been the transformation from a pattern of hostile military confrontation to one of military restraint and cautious accommodation. But the character of the present military-security relationship is difficult to define, and determining future U.S. policy requires analysis of some extremely delicate and sensitive issues.
Even though both the United States and China have taken steps to minimize the dangers of military conflict, the two countries are obviously not allies, and neither is likely to view the relationship in traditional alliance terms in the foreseeable future. In fact, neither can ignore the possibilities for future Sino-American conflict.
Nevertheless, in regard to security issues their policies today involve certain elements of parallelism and even of tacit cooperation. One key question for the United States is whether it should push that parallelism further. Another is whether it it should try to develop direct military links and cooperate overtly with the Chinese on matters involving military security.1
In attempting to deal with such questions, it is important to define the basic assumptions and objectives that should underlie U.S. policy. This requires an appraisal of what American military analysts refer to as the "China threat" as well as the arguments for and against future parallelism or cooperation with the Chinese in military matters.
To date, China has never had, and it still lacks, any capability to pose a direct military threat - nuclear or conventional, air or naval - to the United States itself.2 If it develops an operational force of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), it may be capable of inflicting nuclear damage on the United States; but China's vulnerability to massive retaliation should prevent rational Chinese leaders, with adequate control over their missile forces, from posing threats against the United States itself, although China could threaten a small retaliatory strike in the event of an American attack.
China does have a theoretical capability to pose a nuclear threat, but not at present a significant conventional threat, against Japan, the United States' major ally in Asia. But unless there are far-reaching changes in the entire East Asian situation as well as in Peking's basic policies, it is implausible that Chinese leaders would consider posing such a threat; even if they were to consider doing so, they should be effectively deterred from actually using nuclear weapons, as long as the U.S.-Japan security treaty provides Tokyo with a dependable "nuclear umbrella."
China obviously can pose a substantial threat with its conventional military forces to the smaller nations on its periphery, including some that have close relationships with the United States. There is no evidence, however, that it now plans such actions. In the context of its current overall foreign policy and the present general situation in East Asia, it seems unlikely to do so. Peking's past intervention in Korea and involvement in Vietnam were in response to U.S. actions that it saw as threatening to China. In the period ahead, even if China's new leaders are tempted to use force against small neighbors, they will be strongly inhibited from doing so by the potential dangers from retaliatory responses by either the Soviet Union or the United States, and the political and economic costs that military adventurism could incur. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that despite China's capabilities, there is a low probability at present of China initiating major military actions even against vulnerable nations on its periphery.
One of the principal dangers the United States must consider in assessing a China threat, however, is the possible initiation of military action by North Korea or North Vietnam. China maintains important military relations with, and provides significant military support to, these two Communist "middle powers." If either of them precipitated a local conflict, China might provide them with support, and an enlarged conflict could draw in other major powers, including the United States.
China is also capable of providing military support to insurrectionary movements in nearby countries. It seems unlikely, however, that Peking will consider direct Chinese military intervention to aid such movements. In fact, Peking will probably limit even its covert support in the period immediately ahead, unless either the general regional situation or basic Chinese policies change.
At present, therefore, American leaders can and should take a relatively relaxed view of any potential "China threat." For its part, the United States should avoid military deployments and policies that might again heighten Chinese fears of a U.S. threat. Nevertheless, for political as well as military reasons, it should continue to maintain a military presence in East Asia. At present the necessity for this derives less from any imminent danger of major Chinese military action directed either against American forces or against allies of the United States than from the need to deter Moscow from increasing its military activity in the area, to psychologically reassure U.S. allies and other small nations in the region and help bolster their capacity to deal with internal insurrections or local conflicts, to help deter the medium-sized communist powers from considering reckless military actions, and to create a more stable equilibrium among the major powers in the region. In addition, a continuing U.S. military presence should reinforce Chinese prudence and restraint and ensure against the possibility of a future change in Chinese policies.
The existing strategic capabilities of U.S. naval, air, and missile forces assigned to the region will be sufficient to deter any nuclear threat even after China acquires ICBMs. And although the strength of U.S. conventional units in the area has been substantially reduced recently, they are also probably sufficient to meet U.S. obligations (and will continue to be so even with some further adjustments downward). In Korea, U.S. forces help both to deter North Korea and counterbalance its air superiority and to prevent provocative action on the part of the South. In Japan and the Philippines, U.S. bases provide a symbol of U.S. defense commitments and support for U.S. naval and air forces, which have an important stabilizing role throughout East Asia. Even though it is highly unlikely - and generally so recognized - that the United States will intervene with its own military forces in Southeast Asia in the years immediately ahead, U.S. military support of noncommunist nations, along with political and economic aid, continues to be a significant factor in the region and contributes to the strategic balance in important ways.
Since the start of the 1970s, the context in which security issues in East Asia must be viewed has broadened. Problems now cannot be approached simply in terms of combating, deterring, or containing any one threatening power, whether it be China or the Soviet Union. The maintenance and stabilization of the general equilibrium in the region have become the prime task. Policies designed to achieve broad political and economic deterrence - policies aimed at making major aggressive action excessively costly in political and economic as well as military terms - are likely to be at least as important as those aimed at military deterrence per se.
Even though neither the United States nor China can exclude the possibility of future military conflict between themselves, and must therefore be prepared to cope with that contingency, this is not a preoccupation today in either capital. In fact, there is an increasing tendency on both sides to focus attention on elements of possible parallelism or convergence in their military-security concerns and interests.
Though the parallelism that has developed is largely tacit, and clearly limited, it is important because it concerns U.S. and Chinese relations with the other major powers in East Asia. Both Washington and Peking oppose increases in the Soviet military presence and power position in East Asia, as well as in South Asia or other adjacent regions such as the Middle East. China's fear of Russia's actions, especially in East Asia, may be more acute than that of the United States, but the two have common interests in regard to the problem.
Both Washington and Peking also oppose major remilitarization by Japan - especially Japan's development of a nuclear capability. Here again, however, the motives and concerns of the two differ despite the elements of convergence. Washington believes that a nonmilitarized Japan, without nuclear arms, can in cooperation with the United States play a major constructive role in Asia and globally and that the remilitarization of Japan would have unfortunate political effects within Japan and could tend to destabilize the regional equilibrium, creating alarm throughout East Asia and perhaps weakening, or even undermining, the U.S.-Japan relationship. China's major concern is that a Japan without any security link to the United States might tilt toward the Soviet Union. Peking's latent long-range concern is that a rearmed Japan could become aggressive and pose a direct threat to China once again.
Despite the differences in their motivations, both countries are now inclined to use their influence, in parallel at least, to discourage any moves by the Soviet Union aimed at increasing its military role in the region - for example, efforts to expand its naval activities in Southeast Asia or to acquire base rights in the region. And in striking contrast to the recent past, China now approves the maintenance of the U.S. military alliance with Japan and favors a significant U.S. military presence in other areas of potential conflict in East Asia where a U.S. withdrawal could create a military vacuum into which the Soviet Union might move.
The Chinese doubtless still believe that eventually all non-Asian powers should get entirely out of the region, militarily, but not under existing circumstances. Today, instead of being primarily concerned that the United States will continue a military presence in East Asia, they appear more concerned that it may not be willing or able to play a strong enough role to check the rise of Soviet influence. Their position obviously could change if their fears of Moscow's intentions abated. But, for the present, the Chinese are deliberately foregoing opportunities to use their influence to weaken the American military position in East Asia and exert pressure for rapid U.S. withdrawals - for example, in their dealings with the Thais and Filipinos - and are communicating to the United States, often indirectly and elliptically, their desire that Washington not weaken its military position. The main Chinese fear at present focuses on the possible political consequences of apparent shifts in the military balance. Thus the political effects of the U.S. military presence are especially important.
Peking's interest in a continuing military role for the United States in East Asia may be ironical, but it is an important fact that alters the basic situation, for continuation of a significant and credible U.S. military role has become a positive force in the development of U.S.-China relations. If the United States were to withdraw militarily, or the credibility of its military role in the region were to be undermined, China's view of its stake in the Sino-American relationship might significantly diminish.
The kind of parallelism that exists today in the U.S.-China security relationship does not yet involve, and does not require, overt military cooperation. It is very possible, however, that in the period immediately ahead either Washington or Peking could seriously consider whether, and if so how and to what extent, the two countries should establish direct military contacts.
There were hints from the Chinese side, in conversations with nonofficial Americans during 1974-75, of possible interest in purchases of U.S. military technology. There were also articles in the Chinese press indicating that at least some leaders in Peking argued for obtaining advanced military technology from abroad,3 and China began to purchase important military items from other Western countries.4 However, when a congressional delegation consisting mainly of House Armed Services Committee members visited China in April 1976, the Chinese did not express any interest in obtaining U.S. arms.5
In the United States, public discussion of the issue, which began in late 1975,6 increased in early 1976. Statements by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger that there had been discussion in the U.S. government of whether to consider arms sales to China evoked statements by State Department officials that the issue had not been discussed "specifically."7 A short time later, Commerce Department Secretary Elliot L. Richardson was reported to have said publicly that the United States would be willing to discuss arms sales to China if Peking raised the subject.8
In the fall of 1976, Schlesinger on his return from a trip to China stated that "we should not anticipate the Chinese initiating any requests" for the purchase of U.S. arms and "should not press any such deliveries on them," but "we should not reject out of hand the notion of possibly supplying them with weapons."9 Senator Mike Mansfield indicated that he favored such sales, stating: "They should be treated as Yugoslavia, Iran, and other countries."10 Secretary Henry Kissinger declared that "we have never had any requests for the purchase of arms from China, so that issue has never been formally considered by the U.S. government." He added, however, that "we would take an extremely dim view of a military attack, or even military pressure, on China," and that if China wished to purchase American arms, the U.S. response would "depend on the circumstances."11
Though such mixed signals give no indication of how seriously the issues are being considered by the two governments, they do argue for public consideration of the policy questions involved. The issues, clearly, are of extraordinary sensitivity. Any moves toward an explicit military relationship could have far-reaching consequences for U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and Japan as well as China; they will obviously have to be dealt with by the United States with the utmost caution and prudence.
If at some point the Chinese decide to explore the possibilities, they probably will focus attention first on access to information about U.S. military technology, then later on the possibility of purchasing military equipment. Whether China should move toward military contacts with the United States will almost certainly be a highly controversial issue in China. Some Chinese leaders can be expected to oppose the idea strongly, on ideological and political grounds. Others, however, may favor it, for strictly pragmatic reasons.
The most obvious Chinese motive for deciding to extend serious feelers for contacts in this field would be the actual desire to obtain much-needed information on advanced weapons technology, or prototypes, or limited supplies of certain military equipment that would enable them to close some of the great gaps between Chinese and Soviet military capabilities. But some Chinese leaders might hope also to lay the groundwork for much more extensive cooperation that could directly involve the United States in the event of a Soviet attack on China. And it is possible that the primary objectives behind Chinese feelers could be psychological and political - a desire deliberately to arouse Russian fears of Sino-American collusion, to create new sources of U.S.-Soviet frictions, possibly to complicate U.S. relations with other nations. The United States will have to make some very difficult judgments about Chinese motives in considering its own policy. It will also have to weigh the possible consequences, direct and indirect, of whatever it decides to do.
It is possible to argue on strictly military grounds that it is desirable for China not only to be able to defend itself against possible Soviet threats but also to tie down Soviet forces in the East, and that because China is now so vulnerable, U.S. interests would be well served by actively helping Peking to strengthen its defensive capabilities. Even though Moscow would doubtless object, it would have few legitimate reasons for doing so because it now enjoys such overwhelming military superiority over Peking. Conceivably, a less unequal balance in the military strength of the two communist powers might increase the stability of their relationship and therefore reduce the dangers of conflict in East Asia. Moreover, Moscow's uncertainty about the possibility of U.S. military support of China in the event of conflict might increase its inhibitions against considering military action against China. In terms of U.S. military strategy globally, any policies that compelled Moscow to station large military forces in East Asia could be advantageous. And even very limited military cooperation with the United States might encourage China to forego, or at least postpone, development of intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles designed to reach U.S. targets.
Some sort of military cooperation could also be viewed as a means of increasing Peking's stake in the overall U.S.-China relationship and reducing the possibility that it will consider other policy options, including the reestablishment of military relations with Moscow. As a quid pro quo for military cooperation, perhaps Peking might make significant political concessions and show increased political restraint in dealings with the United States. Some who consider a far-reaching Sino-Soviet rapprochement as a real danger feel the risks of that occurring could be significantly reduced if the United States established some sort of military link with China.
Despite all such arguments, however, there will also be many arguments against developing overt Sino-American cooperation in the military field; it might have varied undesirable, unwanted, and potentially dangerous consequences and conceivably could involve serious risks. Any U.S.-China military link might be the first step down a "slippery slope" of U.S. involvement in problems and conflicts it should stay out of. China's internal politics and its leadership are still so unpredictable that the possibility of a reversion by the Chinese to hostile policies cannot be ruled out. Therefore, any improvement of China's military capabilities might simply increase Peking's ability to threaten U.S. allies and other noncommunist countries in Asia.
The strongest argument against steps toward a direct U.S.-China military relationship is the possibility that it would have seriously adverse effects on the pattern of relationships among the major powers in East Asia, especially those of the Soviet Union with the United States and China. If it confirmed Moscow's fears about anti-Soviet collusion by Washington and Peking, Soviet paranoia could heighten, Sino-Soviet tensions increase, and conceivably Soviet pressures on China become more severe. Chinese leaders, rather than becoming more reasonable, might adopt a more intransigent, or provocative, stance. The adverse effects on U.S.-Soviet relations could be destabilizing. And the U.S. alliance with Japan could be weakened if many Japanese came to question the basic priorities of U.S. policy in East Asia. If Tokyo's apprehensions about China's military capabilities should increase, the influence of those in Japan who favor Japanese remilitarization might also grow. Any evidence of U.S.-China military cooperation is likely also to stir latent fears of China in the smaller Asian nations.
The United States cannot ignore the risk of destabilizing the overall big-power equilibrium in East Asia by establishing military links with China. Those who minimize this risk can, it is true, cite a variety of past instances in which complex but limited military relationships were established without producing any of the theoretically possible disastrous results - for example, U.S. military aid to Yugoslavia after 1948 to bolster its defenses against possible Soviet threats despite Moscow's displeasure; Soviet military aid to Cuba after 1962 (other than nuclear missiles) despite continuing U.S. disapproval; Washington's arms sales to various Arab countries despite the possibility that those arms could be used against the U.S.-supported regime in Israel; and the symbolically important exchange visits of Romanian and Chinese military delegations, despite Moscow's obvious disapproval. Yet none of these is really analogous, for the U.S.-Chinese-Soviet triangle is unique in many respects, and the dangers of destabilizing the existing relationships in East Asia are much greater.
If the question of establishing U.S.-China military cooperation were to arise in black and white, either/or terms, all the pertinent factors could be weighed simultaneously in deciding what U.S. policy should be. The problem is more likely, however, to arise in many different guises, starting with proposals for relatively small moves, often involving subtle and ambiguous issues. The larger issue could be obscured. Calculating the potential gains and risks of small moves may be extremely difficult; and it would be a mistake to judge them on their own merits alone, without considering whether they might be the first steps leading to an escalating U.S. involvement.
If the United States is to engage in a process of direct interaction of any sort with the Chinese in the military field, it must have a fairly clear idea of where it will draw the line and stop. Before making any specific moves, therefore, it would be wise to determine not only what steps might be worth considering under existing circumstances, but also those that Washington should clearly refuse to consider, and some of the possibilities that fall between the two extremes.
Some of the initial questions will focus on whether there should be military contact of any sort. For example, should there be conversations between American and Chinese officers or military leaders? If so, in China or the United States? Or in third countries? Should military delegations be exchanged? Should the two countries accept military attachés from each other after formal diplomatic relations have been established?
Another set of questions will concern the possibilities of the United States sharing information or selling equipment to China that could be militarily useful. Should the United States sell to China, for civilian purposes, technology and equipment that could easily have military uses - for example, computers, jet transports or helicopters? Should Washington make available intelligence information that it knows China would find useful in planning its defenses - for example, information on general Soviet military capabilities and deployments, and possibly on Soviet missile firings? Should it go further and develop channels for sharing certain types of intelligence data exclusively with China?
Other questions will concern more explicit, though still limited, forms of military cooperation. Should the United States sell to China technological information that is clearly military in its utility but relatively unsophisticated? Should it also make available prototypes of military equipment, or sell limited quantities of equipment? If sales are considered, should they be restricted to items principally useful for passive defense, such as data or equipment useful in communications, satellite reconnaissance, antisubmarine sonar, and early warning radar?
Eventually, questions might be raised about whether the United States should be prepared to sell information or military items that could clearly be used to improve Chinese offensive capabilities, such as technology useful for the development of offensive long-range aircraft or missiles, even though the Russians would obviously view this as extremely dangerous. Finally, if a military relationship develops, questions would probably be raised eventually about whether the United States should be prepared to sell large quantities of equipment of any of the types mentioned to China.
These questions are worth raising if for no other reason than to highlight the fact that once any direct military links are established between the United States and China, the door may be open to a much more far-reaching military relationship. This obviously argues for caution on the U.S. part about starting down this road. I believe that a prudent and sensible position for the United States to adopt at present regarding U.S.-China military contacts and cooperation would be to firmly close the door to certain possibilities, study certain others without making any moves now to implement them, and indicate that Washington is prepared now to consider, cautiously, only certain very limited steps. At present, the United States should show its willingness to establish contacts to discuss military as well as political and economic problems, if China is seriously interested. It should also, however, make clear to Peking that a primary U.S. consideration in whatever it does is its desire to avoid actions that might significantly increase tensions or destabilize big-power relations in East Asia.
Under present circumstances, the United States should firmly close the door to sales to China of any equipment or technology that is useful above all for advanced offensive weapons systems, and also to large-scale sales of military equipment of any sort. The repercussions of making such sales - in the Soviet Union, Japan and elsewhere - would be such as to make them unwise, even though they might do no more than reduce China's military inferiority. Moreover, the present state of U.S.-China relations, and uncertainties about the future of the relationship, are such that sales of this sort are simply not justifiable.
The United States can leave open, however, and study further the possibility of exchanging intelligence information bilaterally; if such exchanges are considered, however, they should be restricted to information useful primarily for defensive and not offensive purposes (a difficult line to determine). Another possibility that need not be totally excluded at this point, although it would have more far-reaching consequences and risks and obviously could not be undertaken lightly, would be providing data, and possibly prototypes, for military items useful for improving China's passive defense systems. One can also imagine circumstances in which the United States might also wish to consider selling to China limited quantities of relatively unsophisticated conventional military hardware, which could enhance its defensive capabilities without significantly increasing its anti-Soviet or anti-U.S. offensive potential (another difficult-to-draw line).
Today a careful balancing of the pros and cons of taking such steps argues against them, in my view, but the calculus of benefits and costs could change, and the United States need not foreclose the option of considering such steps at some point in the future. They would be aimed at helping China improve its passive defense capabilities, without unduly enhancing its offensive military capabilities. They should only be seriously considered, however, if the United States were satisfied that the trend in its relations with China was toward continued improvement, thereby minimizing the risk of future U.S.-China conflict; that Peking was prepared to be less provocative in its dealings with Moscow, thereby reducing the risk of Sino-Soviet conflict; and that Washington could convince the Russians that China's strengthened defense would not create a serious military threat to the Soviet Union.
The caution that should govern American sales of military hardware to China need not apply to the same extent to U.S. allies in Europe. Britain, Germany, France, and conceivably even Japan may make sales of items such as defensive fighter aircraft, which the United States should not oppose even though it restricts U.S. sales of similar items. European sales would involve fewer risks of destabilizing relations with Moscow (although neither the United States nor the other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should assume that there would be no risks at all involved). During the past two years China has purchased some military items from Europe, and the U.S. government has, in effect, given tacit approval to such sales.12 This is a sensible policy under the circumstances of today.
The principal step that the United States itself should consider in the near future is a very limited one; namely, the establishment of direct contacts between American and Chinese military personnel. There clearly would be value in initiating discussions between military officers, and after the establishment of diplomatic relations in exchanging military attachés. (The United States, China and the Soviet Union all routinely develop contacts of this kind with adversaries as well as friends.) In addition, Washington should seriously consider the possibility of publicly releasing intelligence data - for example, data that it obtains from satellites - that are already available to Moscow but not to Peking and that would be useful to China in a defensive sense. And the United States should follow a policy that minimizes security restrictions on technology and equipment that are on the borderline between civilian and military use and that would therefore permit the sale of certain types of computers, transport jets, helicopters, and the like. (Even the Soviet Union has continued to sell transport jets and helicopters to China, despite the intensity of the Sino-Soviet dispute.)
To sum up, the keynote of any U.S. approach to the establishment of direct military relations with China at present should be caution. Washington should view sympathetically China's problem of improving its defense capabilities in the face of the Soviet Union's vastly superior military power, and it should actively throw its political weight into the balance to help deter any Sino-Soviet military conflict provoked by either side. But the United States cannot ignore the extreme sensitivity of the U.S.-China-Soviet military triangle and should avoid actions that might have destabilizing effects on existing relationships. It must not ignore possible repercussions elsewhere in Asia, especially in Japan, and it should consult closely with Tokyo on these as on other major policy issues.
Even though the United States can now, without undue risks or costs, consider establishing military contacts with China, pursuing a liberal policy on technology transfers, and maintaining a tolerant position on European military sales to China, it should not itself engage in direct sales of purely military technology or hardware to Peking. We need not completely close the door to sales in the future of technology and hardware useful primarily for passive defense systems. But all in all, the issues in this field are so complex and sensitive that precipitous steps should be avoided.
2 For background on China's military capabilities, see Angus M. Fraser, The People's Liberation Army, Communist China's Armed Forces, New York: Crane Russak, 1973; and International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 1976-77, London: IISS, 1976.
4 New York Times, Nov. 10 and Dec. 18, 1975.
5 Ibid., April 26, 1976.
6 Pillsbury, "U.S.-Chinese Military Ties?" stimulated a flurry of interest; see Newsweek, Sept. 8, 1975, p. 15, and Dec. 8, 1975, p. 38; Washington Post, Oct. 9, 1975; New York Times, Oct. 15, 1975; Time, Oct. 20, 1975, p. 33; and Economist, Oct. 18, 1975, p. 15. For Russian reactions, see Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report - USSR, Oct. 28, 1975, p. C-2, and Oct. 31, 1975, p. C-2.
7 Washington Post, April 12, 1976.
8 Ibid., May 29, 1976.
10 The Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1976.
11 Department of State Bulletin, November 15, 1976, p. 609.
12 In December 1975 after long negotiations with British Rolls-Royce representatives the Chinese received a license to manufacture the Spey engine (The Washington Post and The New York Times, December 15, 1975). The engines can clearly be used for defensive military aircraft; yet Britain gave no indication that it intended to ask COCOM (the intergovernmental coordinating committee through which the major non-communist nations have coordinated trade policies affecting strategic items) for permission to make an agreement, nor did the United States appear to try to block its implementation.
Shortly thereafter, West Germany's Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohn group was reported to be negotiating a licensing agreement for the manufacture in China of its B-105 helicopter (U.S.-China Business Review, January-February 1976, p. 52).
On December 28, 1975, Sankei, a leading Japanese newspaper, reported that the Chinese were showing a strong interest in purchasing Japanese-manufactured US-I amphibious patrol and sea rescue planes (Daily Summary of Japanese Press, January 8, 1976, p. 32). The paper commented that such a sale would be "a breakthrough for our country's export of weapons"; no agreement had been reached, however, and strong opposition was expected both in and out of the government.
The Chinese have purchased some French helicopters. There have been reports of their interest in purchasing (and possibly licensing for manufacture) the French Mirage fighter; in January 1976, however, in conversations with French officials at the Foreign Ministry in Paris, I was unable to obtain official confirmation of this.