China’s recent commitment to supply Pakistan with two 1100MWe ACP 1000 nuclear power reactors has raised considerable apprehensions among the non-proliferation advocates. The nuclear sales are once again a blatant contravention of China’s commitment to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to refrain from further providing Pakistan’s Chasma nuclear facility with more reactors beyond Chasma1 and 2 that began commercial operation in 2000 and 2011 respectively. Construction of two additional reactors Chasma 3 and 4 are underway under Chinese supervision. Sino-Pak nuclear trade involves the weakening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the nuclear export controls regime. China’s prolific nuclear weapons technology trade with a politically fragile and domestically volatile Pakistan lacks adequate transparency and raises concerns about a clandestine nuclear nexus between the two countries. The state of affairs are worrisome because there is a lateral linkage between China-Pakistan nuclear dealings and the possibilities of nuclear accidents, pilferages, illicit nuclear black-market and the consequent dangers of nuclear terrorism in South Asia.
Any talk on Sino-Pak nuclear trade invariably constitutes a sinister pointer towards the clandestine nuclear deals in nuclear material, dual-use technology and infrastructure that Beijing and Islamabad has had for the last five decades. China played a crucial role albeit in violation of the global non-proliferation rules in building and expanding Pakistan’s strategic programme. China offered nuclear assistance to Pakistan when the rules of the stringent export controls regime made it near impossible for Pakistan to have access to relevant nuclear technology critical for the development of its nuclear infrastructure. The Western powers refused to provide nuclear aid to Pakistan given the latter’s record of vertical and horizontal proliferation of nuclear technology. However, China clandestinely provided Pakistan 50 kilogrammes of weapons-grade uranium, nuclear blue-prints and tones of uranium hexafluoride for uranium enrichment process. China is perhaps the only NPT state that proliferated sensitive nuclear materials and technology to a non-NPT state.
Why China, both an NPT and NSG member is engaged in nuclear collaboration with Pakistan bearing a non-proliferation record has been questioned in possibly every international forum? Undoubtedly, it tarnishes China’s image from a responsible NPT member state to a methodical nuclear proliferator. What are the strategic and political motivations of China behind Sino-Pak nuclear axis? China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation deepened mainly in response to the Indo-US civil-nuclear deal of 2008. Anticipating a US-pioneered civil-nuclear deal to tilt in favour of India, in South Asia, China sought to restore the nuclear balance by transferring nuclear technology to Pakistan. However, China misses the point that to achieve the civil-nuclear deal India has proved itself as a responsible exporter and has committed to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, adhere to an additional protocol, continue a moratorium on nuclear testing, and agreed to work towards the conclusion of the FMCT. All these measures are aimed at reinforcing the legitimacy of international safeguards and strengthen the non-proliferation regime. Pakistan has neither made such commitments nor established a responsible nuclear record instead it has proliferated crucial nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran.
Why then China is providing nuclear technology to Pakistan which remains vulnerable to insider threats, lacks a reliable personnel reliability programme and is at “geographic crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction?” China seeks to draw nuclear parity between India-Pakistan and guarantee Islamabad’s security against a conventionally superior India. But, if Pakistan’s nuclear programme is primarily India-centric, how many bombs do Islamabad need to deter its single adversary? Alternatively, Beijing can extend a nuclear umbrella (similar to the US) to Pakistan and address the prevailing systemic problems plaguing Pakistan rather than leaving it vulnerable to frequent terrorists’ bombings. However, China refrains from doing so as this would devoid Beijing of the potential to use Pakistan as a proxy rival in conflicts against India and scuttle New Delhi’s rise in the global hierarchy.
China-Pakistan nuclear axis has brought the non-proliferation regime and its goals of disarmament to a crossroads. The destructive nuclear engagement will generate distrust and subvert the much needed India-Pakistan confidence-building-measures for regional stability. However, China can attempt to turn the situation in favour of the non-proliferation regime. It could enhance Islamabad’s nuclear security to prevent Pakistani loose nukes from falling into wrong hands. Being an NPT member, China can negotiate with Pakistan on non-proliferation matters and exact concessions like Pakistan’s support on FMCT for a civil-nuclear cooperation in return. Beijing can take initiative with India and Pakistan on the FMCT issue to halt fissile material production in South Asia and worldwide. The nuclear threat in India and Pakistan is real as has been recognized by both the nuclear powers. It is important that both India and Pakistan cooperate effectively in improving nuclear security in South Asia and worldwide.
China has demonstrated its determined position on security in the Korean Peninsula and declared that no country “should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain”. It can be expected that Beijing will refrain from double-standards in preventing regional tensions in South Asia. The international community must focus its diplomatic attention to the China-Pakistan sales. They must recognize that both China cannot assist Pakistan in the long run without an NSG exemption. The global community must oppose the Sino-Pakistan nuclear sales or else it will become a precedent of ignoring nuclear non-proliferation norms for facilitating global nuclear trade.