NEW DELHI — In recent days, new evidence has surfaced that China and Pakistan have stepped up their clandestine nuclear and missile collaboration as part of their joint rivalry with India. It is clear that the Sino-Pakistani nexus is getting stronger, putting India’s security under increased pressure. Media reports and leaks from U.S. intelligence briefings to Congress have unveiled new Sino-Pakistani activities that authorities in both Washington and New Delhi are reluctant to talk about.

Left to face the music essentially on its own, India has only one real ally: the American press, which every so often uncovers details of the Sino-Pakistani collaboration that the U.S. administration wants to suppress in order not to invoke sanctions laws. Often, the particulars disclosed are already known to the Indian government. Sometimes, however, information gets revealed that is new to Indian authorities. In either case, ordinary Indians learn about the goings-on from U.S. media revelations.

The latest activities discovered , however, are so serious that they were the focus of talks that a high-ranking U.S. delegation led by John Holum had in Beijing last weekend. As usual, the Chinese were inflexible on Pakistan but willing to be flexible on other issues. The concern over Sino-Pakistani assistance flow was discussed at length during the talks but, as Holum said, “the issue remains unresolved.”

China is doing everything possible to hem India in from three sides — Pakistan, Tibet and Myanmar. Not only is there a Sino-Pakistani and a Sino-Myanmar nexus, a Pakistani-Myanmar nexus is also emerging under Chinese patronage to complete the triangle. Last week, as Indian Army chief Gen. V.P. Malik was in Yangon, Myanmar’s reclusive intelligence chief, Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt, was paying a surprise visit to Pakistan — to Malik’s embarrassment. The pro-China Khin Nyunt is locked in a power struggle with the nationalistic army commander, Gen. Maung Aye, to succeed the ailing junta chief, Gen. Than Shwe.

The growing links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Myanmar’s intelligence are part of a budding strategic relationship between the two military-dominated states. These links represent a threat to India, whose vulnerable, insurgency-torn northeastern region borders Myanmar and has already been a happy hunting ground for ISI operatives.

A quick look at the latest aspects of the Sino-Pakistani nuclear and missile collaboration shows how vitally they impinge on India’s security:

* Pakistan has now begun producing plutonium, essential for building compact, missile-deliverable warheads. Until now, it only had highly enriched uranium, which can yield bulkier weapons suitable only for delivery by bomber-aircraft. The plutonium production plugs the missing link in Pakistan’s deterrent plans, giving it the capability to launch advanced warheads atop its ballistic missiles supplied or designed by China.

* China has helped set up Pakistan’s plutonium-fuel cycle — the 50-megawatt Khushab research reactor, a facility to produce heavy water for it and a reprocessing plant to extract plutonium from its spent fuel. While Khushab became functional in 1998, the reprocessing plant started operating recently, as indicated by traces of Krypton-85 gas found in air samples taken near the reactor.

* Since India went overtly nuclear in 1998 by conducting a series of tests, Beijing has actually increased its transfers of missile technologies and components to Pakistan. It has adopted two routes: transferring technology to Pakistan for local production, as in the nuclear field; and routing some missile items via North Korea. Chinese technicians remain at Pakistan’s newest missile factory.

The stepped-up Chinese nuclear and missile aid to Islamabad is the only prophecy of critics of India’s overt nuclearization to come true. Diplomatically, economically and politically, India has come out stronger from its 1998 tests. New Delhi, however, has to ask itself why its nuclear shield, rather than instilling greater responsibility and caution in Beijing, is inspiring stronger Chinese containment of India. Is it because India has not tried to assert itself or exploit available strategic options?

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan’s visit from July 22 is a case in point. The first senior Cabinet minister to visit India since after the 1996 Jiang visit, Tang will continue the tradition set by his president — a stop in India is to be combined with a trip to China’s regional deputy, Pakistan. And New Delhi is deferentially allowing such a tradition to be set when it can easily put its foot down. Alternatively, it should ensure no Indian official goes to Beijing without also having on his itinerary a nation that shares concerns about China.

China clearly aims to be the unchallenged power in Asia. It wants in Asia what it decries at the global level — a unipolar setting. It aspires for such Asian pre-eminence that “no major action will be taken by any other international actor in Asia without first considering Chinese interests,” as a Pentagon report says. Put simply, China wants to be Asia’s hegemon, free to contain India, bully Taiwan, shame Japan, divide ASEAN, and make use of roguish Pakistan and North Korea.

It believes it already has arrived as the dominant Asian power, and the task now is to ensure U.S. acquiescence in this “reality” through Washington’s commitment not to challenge its regional interests, be it on Pakistan or Taiwan. That it is already drunk with power is apparent from its threat to invade democratic Taiwan, not just if it declares independence, but also if it holds off on “reunification” talks. Its increased covert assistance to Pakistan is another indicator of the same.

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