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China-Pakistan nuclear axis defies nonproliferation aims

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

The nonproliferation regime is in crisis with North Korea’s defiance and Iran’s continuation of its nuclear program despite opposition from the international community. Yet while a lot of discussion is happening about what can be done about these two states, no one seems willing to take on the elephant in the room: China.

Not only has China played a crucial role in the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, its nuclear engagement with Pakistan potentially remains the most destabilizing factor in the global management of nuclear weapons technology.

Last month Beijing confirmed its plans to sell a new 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor to Pakistan in a deal signed in February. This pact was secretly concluded between the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission during the visit by Pakistani nuclear industry officials to Beijing on Feb. 15-18. This sale will once again violate China’s commitment to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and contravenes China’s promise in 2004 while joining the NSG not to sell additional reactors to Pakistan’s Chashma nuclear facility beyond the two reactors that began operating in 2000 and 2011.

While this issue is likely to come up for discussion at the June meeting of the NSG in Prague, Beijing has already made it clear that nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan “does not violate relevant principles of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.” This when the CNNC is not merely constructing civilian reactors in Chashm but also developing Pakistan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing capabilities and working to modernize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

At a time when concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program are causing jitters around the world, China has made its intention clear to go all-out in helping Pakistan’s nuclear development. Yet, with the diplomatic energies focused on Iran and North Korea, there is little discussion about the serious implications of this trend.

China has been bolstering Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities for the past five decades in an attempt to maintain parity between India and Pakistan. Based on their convergent interests vis-a-vis India, China and Pakistan reached a strategic understanding in mid-1950s, a bond that has only strengthened ever since.

Sino-Pakistan ties gained particular momentum in aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war when the two states signed a boundary agreement recognizing Chinese control over portions of the disputed Kashmir territory. Since then, ties have been so strong that former Chinese President Hu Jintao described the relationship as “higher than mountains and deeper than oceans.”

It was Pakistan that, in the early 1970s, enabled China to cultivate its ties with the West and the United States in particular, becoming the conduit for Henry Kissinger’s landmark secret visit to China in 1971 and has been instrumental in bringing China closer to the larger Muslim world.

Over the years China emerged as Pakistan’s largest defense supplier. Military cooperation between the two has deepened with joint projects producing armaments ranging from fighter jets to guided missile frigates. China is a steady source of military hardware for the resource-deficient Pakistani Army. It has not only given technology assistance to Pakistan but also helped Pakistan to set up mass weapons production factories.

But what has been most significant is China’s major role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, emerging as Pakistan’s benefactor at a time when increasingly stringent export controls in Western countries made it difficult for Pakistan to acquire materials and technology from elsewhere.

The Pakistani nuclear weapons program is essentially an extension of the Chinese one. Despite being a member of the NPT, China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear materials and expertise and has provided critical assistance in the construction of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Although China has long denied helping any nation attain a nuclear capability, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, himself has acknowledged the crucial role China has played in his nation’s nuclear weaponization by gifting 50 kg of weapons grade-enriched uranium and tons of uranium hexafluoride for Pakistan’s centrifuges. This may be the only case where a nuclear weapons state has passed on weapons-grade fissile material as well as a bomb design to a nonnuclear weapons state.

India has been the main factor that has influenced China and Pakistan’s policies vis-a-vis each other. Whereas Pakistan wants to gain access to civilian and military resources from China to balance the Indian might in the subcontinent, China, viewing India as potential challenger in the strategic landscape of Asia, views Pakistan as it central instrument to counter Indian power in the region.

The China-Pakistan partnership serves the interests of both by presenting India with a potential two-front theater in the event of war with either country. Not surprisingly, one of the central pillars of Pakistan’s strategic policies for more than four decades has been its steady and ever-growing military relationship with China. And preventing India’s dominance of South Asia by strengthening Pakistan has been a strategic priority for China.

But with India’s ascent in global hierarchy and American attempts to carve out a strong partnership with India, China’s need for Pakistan is only likely to grow. A rising India makes Pakistan all the more important for Chinese strategy for the subcontinent.

It’s highly unlikely that China will give up playing the Pakistan card vis-a-vis India anytime soon. And in this business of great power politics, weakening nuclear nonproliferation will continue to be a second order priority for Beijing.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.

  • Shawez

    The author easily forgot the US-India Civil Nuclear deal under which the US (a signatory of the NSG) is to transfer nuclear materials to India (a non-member state under the NPT and NSG). So what, double standards?

    • IAF101

      Difference between the US-India nuclear deal and the Pakistan-China illegal deal is that the US-India nuclear accord had explicit NSG approval while the China-Pakistan deal DOES NOT.

      Further, China’s transfer of nuclear material, machinery and know-how to Pakistan is dubiously justified as a continuation of an earlier contract signed between the two nations. While the US-India nuclear deal is a NEW and separate deal. Finally, the US and India had previous nuclear deals under the “Atoms for Peace” program and the US could have sent dozens of un-safeguarded reactors to India as a “continuation” and used China’s dubious justification but didn’t because unlike the China-Pakistan deal, it choose a “legal” and credible path.

      • Roger126

        Please reply with facts. How can you say that Pakistan China deal doesn’t have NSG approval? the deal is part of the contract that Chinese did with Pakistan before China joined NSG. While Indians don’t have any permission yet from NSG. So don’t lie.

      • IAF101

        I have replied with facts – Your ignorance of them or the inconvenience of those facts in pushing your narrative is immaterial. As I have replied China’s deal with Pakistan was for “two” reactors while China has continually amended that deal illegally to 4 and then 6 despite being a member of the NSG! Moreover none of these reactors are under IAEA safeguards and they are used for nuclear weapons program that is expressly forbidden by the NSG rules.

        India has achieved exemptions from the 45 country NSG group to buy nuclear material and nuclear technology in 2008 by consensus. Please educate yourself before you try to educate others. Some of us have better things to do that educate or respond to every ignorant comment.

  • gaucho25

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    Molten salt reactors either LFTR (Liquid
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    MSR waste has a 1/2 life of 300 years not 10,000

    Overview of MIT WAMSR reactor (skip
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    Brief overview from 17 out of 32
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    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecoci4vEbzo

    Interesting web site about Thorium
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    We have the solution but the
    coal and oil and existing reactor industries will fight it.

    We are falling behind because China
    and India are going full blast on this technology

    Congress is setting on its ass while
    the world moves forward. The US could build multiple prototypes in less
    than 10 years for less than the cost of one aircraft carrier

  • yollo

    lol it is the

    U.S-India nuclear axis defies nonproliferation aims,
    by giving access to nuclear technology to india –>thus breaking the NPT treaty.
    furthermore denies Israel and Pakistan access to nuclear technology, through a transparent means.

    • IAF101

      Access to peaceful Nuclear energy technology to India has been earned, not taken as fiat like the Chinese or even the West. The NSG was set up on an arbitrary basis in the 70s without global consultation or UN consultations. Further the NSG is inherently discriminatory not only in its principles but also in its membership as proliferators like China, Iran, North Korea are members while responsible nations are exempted from the global nuclear energy trade like India and Israel.

  • margzaar

    Along with that this export is against the obligation and guidelines of NSG of 46 states. China’s stand on these questions is that this deal is the continuation of the agreements of 1980s when china neither join NPT nor NSG and this export is linked with the 2003 export of nuclear reactor to Pakistan. So, the obligations NSG cannot apply on this deal China did not need to get waiver of NSG.

    Indo-US nuclear deal did not have any provision that shows that India will give up its right to nuclear testing. Indian scientists had been given an access to advance US nuclear technologies under the IAEA safeguards. India conducted a long term negotiations with the countries of NSG and in 2008 got the exception that no need of comprehensive safeguards by IAEA. When we look at the origin of NSG, it was created after the nuclear test of India in 1974, when India diverted the fuel to its weapon program. If India can be given exception in this era then why not Pakistan as in the case of Pak-China nuclear cooperation Pakistan always use imported reactor from china for peaceful purposes.

    • IAF101

      The agreement in 1980s between China and Pakistan were for “two” new nuclear reactors – not “six” as they have been building. Further the 1980s accord cannot be used as a pretext to continually keep adding to the nuclear facility at Chasma – a weapons complex and fuel reprocessing facility. This is against the spirit of the NSG and possibly illegal.

      The difference between India and Pakistan, apart from the fact that one is a responsible Democratic state while the other is a terrorist haven and quasi-democratic militant theocracy. is the fact that Pakistan has a history of illegal nuclear commerce and nuclear proliferation. India negotiated an exception with the NSG for its responsible behavior and non-proliferation record, while Pakistan ran a underground nuclear market supplying nuclear material and technology to North Korea, Libya etc among other states for decades. Bad behavior is not rewarded with special exemptions.

      • margzaar

        Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are well-protected and are under tight security arrangements, having well-coordinated command and control system, a deliberate propaganda campaign against the safety of these weapons keeps on going particularly by the US and India. Besides, some European countries also make much hue and cry regarding the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets by ignoring Indian illegal proliferation. It indicates their double standards in the Sub-continent. Nonetheless, Pak ‘nukes’ are more secure than those of India.

      • IAF101

        My comment questions Pakistan’s past record of nuclear proliferation – not the safety of its allegedly “well-protected” nuclear weapons. And how do you know how “secure” India’s nukes are ?? Unless you work in India’s nuclear establishment your statement regarding the safety of Indian nukes is as empty as the rest of your response.

        Pakistani scientists and the Pakistani military intelligence cabal has been caught red handed peddling nuclear technology in an illegal black market like some terrorist organization or criminal arms merchant and all Pakistani’s have to say is that the world is “ignoring Indian illegal proliferation” without a shred of proof or any tangible evidence to substantiate their claim while AQ Khan is sitting pretty in Pakistan without facing arrest or extradition to be tried in an international court for his crimes ??

        Unless you have specific charges or proof thereof, your drivel about Indian “illegal proliferation” is meaningless. The USA and the NSG are smarter and better informed about global nuclear proliferation to judge for themselves the credibility of India’s proliferation record. To claim “double-standards”, implies that Pakistan’s and India’s case are equally credible but that is fantasy as Pakistan is a known nuclear proliferator, while India isnt.

      • IAF101

        Pakistan’s nukes are about as secure as a leaf before a hurricane. Everyday Pakistan transports its nukes in unmarked trucks across its violent and chaotic country leading to the possibility of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists. The US, the IAEA and most nations in the world see the risk of Pakistan’s nukes to be the greatest danger of WMD proliferation on the planet. The Pakistani civilian government has absolutely no control over these weapons and over the Pakistani military making them the only state where nukes are routinely out of government control. Is that what makes Pakistan’s nukes more “secure”? The lack of oversight or government control ??Unless you work for India’ s nuclear command authority, your comment that Pak nukes are more secure is convenient fantasy considering all that I have already stated above. Regadless, a violent chaotic and lawless state like Pakistan where thousands of Islamist terrorist organization and radical groups operate needs FAR better security of its nuclear weapons than their current shambolic state.

  • IAF101

    But Pakistan has no “poverty” right ? That’s a bit amusing considering India’s GDP is 9 times that of Pakistan while its population is 3 times that of Pakistan!

    As to human rights abuses – the very existence of Pakistan is an affront to human rights with its deeply misogynistic, racist and fanatical constitution that discriminates against tens of millions of minorities in Pakistan and treats them as little better than slaves. The genocide in Bangladesh (West Paksitan) where nearly 1.5 million HIndu and anti-Pakistani men, women and children were massacred in 3 month period. This incident has still not been accounted for by Pakistan, nor has the ethnic cleansing of Baloch’s during Balochistan’s illegal annexation by Pakistan.

    But this is a discussion about nuclear proliferation and let’s not try to deviate from the topic at hand otherwise several unfortunate truths about Pakistan and its ugly history will have to also be brought to light.