China’s decision to sell Pakistan two 340MW nuclear reactors, to augment the Chashma nuclear facility, must arouse international concern. The announcement, made just prior to the second US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue which concluded in Beijing on May 25, indicates that the US withdrew its objections to the sale which has to be approved by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The decision follows strenuous Chinese opposition to the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and China’s constant pressure on the US to extend a similar agreement to Pakistan. The US declined to oblige. At that time China had warned that the US was setting a bad precedent if it made an exception in India’s case. A military journalist and member of a Chinese military educational facility, Xin Bejian, in October 2008 reiterated the warning. He asserted that ‘now that the US buys another country in with nuclear technologies in defiance of the international treaty, other nuclear suppliers also have their own partners of interest as well as good reasons to copy what the US did’. The inference was clear. Significantly, announcement of this sale by China coincides with a sharp drop in Pakistan’s power output in some areas, which has sparked tentative speculation that Pakistan could be accumulating fissile stocks before possible imposition of the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty. It also comes at a time when US President Barack Obama is stressing the importance of nuclear non-proliferation and is grappling with ways to get Iran and North Korea to roll back their nuclear programmes. It is possible that by extending this concession the US hopes to enlist Chinese cooperation in resolution of the Iran and North Korean nuclear issues. That expectation will probably be belied. China’s self-interest dictates against US presence on its doorstep in the Korean Peninsula following an improvement in its relations with North Korea.
Interestingly, all three countries namely Pakistan, Iran and North Korea have, or had, proven clandestine nuclear linkages with China. US approval of China’s recent decision to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan could almost be interpreted as tending to suggest that US policy towards Pakistan and China on this issue has not changed over the past three decades. It was in 1974 that then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger gave the nod to China’s nuclear collaboration with Pakistan. While in Beijing in November 1974, Kissinger remarked to Chinese vice premier Deng Xiaoping in the presence of then Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua that: “…. One of my colleagues said he was not only in favour of giving arms to Pakistan, but arms and nuclear weapons to Pakistan and Bangladesh”.
The dubious track record on nuclear proliferation of the two main beneficiaries of China’s nuclear technology largesse, namely Pakistan and North Korea, brings into sharp focus China’s own role as a nuclear proliferator. The manner in which China continues to ignore the record of these two countries as well as international proliferation concerns is disturbing. China’s role in aiding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is well documented. Pakistan’s clandestine collaboration with North Korea was also a Chinese-brokered missiles-for-nuclear technology deal. Under this arrangement North Korea shipped ready-to-be-assembled Nodong missiles to Pakistan, which renamed them as the ‘Hatf’ missiles. China’s missiles were the basis for Pakistan’s Ghauri series. Direct North Korea-Pakistan military cooperation commenced in the late 1980s, but a decade earlier Pakistan had assisted North Korea with secret deliveries of the Scud-C missiles to Iran. Some years ago a North Korean freighter headed for Karachi, and carrying voluminous detailed drawings, M-9 missiles in ready-to-be-assembled condition and spares for the missiles, was intercepted off Kandla port in Gujarat.
North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, brought the focus back on China and Pakistan’s role as nuclear weapons proliferators. Pakistan expanded military cooperation with North Korea during Benazir Bhutto’s terms as prime minister (1988-’90 and 1993-’96) and sent its nuclear scientists to Pyongyang for training. Benazir travelled to Pyongyang in 1994 reportedly personally carrying centrifuge designs in a compact disc. She was followed by A Q Khan, who was recently released from house arrest. He travelled an additional dozen times to North Korea carrying designs, centrifuge parts and some complete centrifuges. Confirming military involvement, Pakistan’s Army Chief Karamat visited North Korea in December 1997. North Korean scientists and engineers, in turn, visited Pakistan’s uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta. To ensure secrecy all travel of men and material was through China. In 2003, a cargo ship headed to North Korea was intercepted in the Suez Canal carrying aluminum tubing assessed as intended for use as outer casings for G-2 (P-2) centrifuges. Suspicions persist whether these links have actually withered away.
Proliferation concerns in the case of both countries are high. Pakistan has a dubious track record in illegally spreading denied nuclear technology and equipment. The clandestine nuclear network established by its leading nuclear scientist A Q Khan is well known. Today Pakistan, a de facto nuclear weapon state, is wrecked by domestic terrorism, a rapidly sinking economy and growing Islamic fundamentalism. There are serious and well-founded concerns about the safety of its nuclear arsenal and whether it could one day come under the control of an army dominated by Islamic extremists. An economic crisis could well compel Pakistan to share nuclear technology with its affluent Islamic neighbours like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia already has a delivery system in the CSS-2 missiles it acquired from China in the 1980s.
Similarly, North Korea is gripped by economic crisis and is in the midst of serious drought and famine-like conditions. The situation is complicated by the failing health of North Korean leader, 69-year old Kim Jong Il and the fragile succession issue. There is a high possibility that, if North Korea feels isolated or its fiscal situation becomes more precarious, it could sell nuclear weapons technology or nuclear weapons. Its track record of involvement in terrorist actions outside its borders is documented. North Korea’s revenues from arms sales presently are estimated at between $200 million and $1 billion. There would be incentive to increase these earnings and there are any number of terrorist outfits and countries aspiring to nuclear status who are in the illegal nuclear bazaar.
Given this, allowing China to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan is disturbing and fraught with risk. So also is not increasing pressure on China to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapon ambitions.
About the author:
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India