The recent news of the release from house arrest of Pakistan’s rogue nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had leaders and commentators in the free world blowing hot and cold – as usual. The release was condemned as “a blow to international security” but as always the behind-the-scenes role of China as the leading proliferator of nuclear weapons and delivery technology to rogue states, was studiously ignored. I have commented on this question before (Buying the Dragon’s Teeth etc.) but I am returning to it as the likelihood of a nuclear device getting into terrorist hands has now dramatically increased with the rise of the Taliban and the creeping failure, as states, of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. I also hope it will give some of my readers in Dharamshala an idea of the ruthless and Machiavellian extremes to which China is prepared to go to achieve its strategic goals.
Pakistanis may proudly hail Khan as the father of the “Islamic bomb”, but what is generally not noted is that Khan’s PhD is in metallurgical engineering. Khan was certainly responsible for stealing blue prints for the manufacture of enriched uranium from a Dutch laboratory in 1972 and he was put in charge of Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program in 1976. But he was not involved with the actual design, development and testing of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. He wasn’t even living in the country when Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program was secretly launched in 1972.
A New York Times report describes China’s vital contribution to the genesis of Pakistan’s nuclear program. “China, a staunch ally of Pakistan’s, provided blueprints for the bomb, as well as highly enriched uranium, tritium, scientists and key components for a nuclear weapons production complex, among other crucial tools. ‘Without China’s help, Pakistan’s bomb would not exist’ said Gary Milhollin, a leading expert on the spread of nuclear weapons.”
According to a survey of WMD proliferation published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “China’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear program over the past 15 years may have been critical to Pakistan’s nuclear weapon breakthroughs in the 1980s. China was believed to have supplied Pakistan with the plans for one of its earlier nuclear bombs and possibly to have provided enough highly enriched uranium for two such weapons.” The Carnegie Endowment supported survey also details China’s assistance to Pakistan in the construction of plutonium production reactor at Khusab and an unsafeguarded plutonium reprocessing facility at Chasma, giving Pakistan, for the first time, a dependable source of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.
India was initially ahead not only of Pakistan, but even China, in the nuclear field. In the fifties the Indian leadership and scientific community generally subscribed (somewhat naively in retrospect) to the Nehruvian vision of the upliftment of the third world through the peaceful harnessing of nuclear energy, while from the start China’s “…nuclear effort (aided substantially by the USSR) remained almost exclusively military”. In 1955, India’s top nuclear scientist, Homi Bhabha, was president of the landmark international Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva. India’s first nuclear plant (1957) at Trombay “seemed open and aboveboard. There was no secrecy about it.”
The irony is that India’s nuclear weapons program resulted directly from two Chinese actions: the 1962 military attack on India and the 1964 explosion of China’s first nuclear bomb. “The Chinese bomb hurt Bhabha’s pride as much as his patriotism.” Within weeks Bhabha was calling for a nuclear deterrent, and in a few months Indian prime-minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave the go-ahead. But Bhabha’s death and the strong political and moral opposition to the program kept it on hold till 1974 when under Mrs. Indira Gandhi, India conducted its first test.
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and superior delivery system has in a real sense neutralized India’s overwhelming advantage in conventional military terms that it enjoyed over Pakistan. By building up Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and missile systems, China has effectively checkmated India and blind-sided its challenge as China’s main Asian rival.
China has also in a sense checkmated America and its Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, by providing, through its proxy, Pakistan, nuclear weapons technology to North Korea. In June 2002, the CIA delivered a comprehensive analysis of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to President Bush that Pakistan, one of the Bush Administration’s important allies in the war against terrorism, and chief recipient of Chinese nuclear technology, was helping North Korea build the bomb.” Pakistan’s, “A.Q. Khan, is known to have paid at least 13 visits to North Korea.”
Furthermore it has given the Beijing the opportunity to assume the moral high ground and set itself up as an honest broker between the USA and North Korea. It has organized a couple of fruitless meetings in Beijing, assigning to itself an assertive mediating role, and never failing to condemn American lack of cooperation for the collapse of the talks.
On February 17, 2004, the Washington Post came out with the story that Libya’s nuclear weapon design had come from China. The discovery was made by international inspectors after they studied a package of documents turned over to U.S. officials in November last year by Libyan authorities. “The bomb designs and other papers turned over by Libya have yielded dramatic evidence of China’s long-suspected role in transferring nuclear know-how to Pakistan.” The Post story also mentioned that “the packet of documents, some of which included text in Chinese, contained detailed, step-by-step instructions for assembling an implosion-type nuclear bomb that could fit atop a large ballistic missile. They also included technical instructions for manufacturing components for the device, the officials and experts said.”
China’s actions “were irresponsible and short-sighted, and raise questions about what else China provided to Pakistan’s nuclear program,” said David Albright, a nuclear physicist and former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.
It might be noted that the bomb design for Saddam Hussein’s aborted nuclear weapons program was also of Chinese origin.
On June 15, 2004, Reuters reported that congressional investigators from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission had accused China of sending nuclear technology to Iran in exchange for oil. Pakistan and China signed long-term nuclear cooperation agreements with Iran in 1987 and 1990, respectively. Accords with both countries involved training personnel, and in the case of China, the accord included an agreement to provide Iran with a 27KW miniature neutron source reactor (MNSR) and two 300MW Qinshan power reactors. Western intelligence suspected that Pakistan, which many estimated had succeeded in manufacturing a nuclear bomb in 1986, provided Iran with nuclear assistance. Reports in Western press and leaks from Western government and intelligence sources indicated that Pakistan had trained Iranian scientists in plutonium extraction and possibly gas centrifuge enrichment research.
In January this year a book came out that could be described as a political history of nuclear weapons from the discovery of fission in 1938 to the nuclear train wreck that seems to loom in our future. Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman’s The Nuclear Express is as discerning as it is timely. It is also explicit in pointing out and condemning China’s sponsorship of the Pakistani program and the reckless “nuclear weapons programs for sale” exporting of technology that it has unleashed. My only complaint, and it is perhaps nit-picking, is that it doesn’t address sufficiently what I call China’s “nuclear-threat-by-proxy” strategy, whereby through proxies China manages to deliver real nuclear threats to its adversaries, while appearing to remain above the fray.
If it were humanly possible to view the whole thing dispassionately, overlooking the possibility of nuclear conflict in South Asia, North-East Asia and the Middle East, and the potential passage of nuclear weapons into the hands of Islamic terrorists, one can only marvel at the skill and patience with which China has consistently outmaneuvered its many enemies and competitors.
1. Tim Weiner, “U.S. And China Helped Pakistan Build Its Bomb,” The New York Times, June 1, 1998.
2. Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C. 2002
3. Peter Pringle & James Spigelman, The Nuclear Barons, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York, 1981.
4. Seymour M. Hersh, “The Cold Test: What the Administration knew about Pakistan and the North Korean nuclear program”, The New Yorker, January 27,2003.
5. Bill Keller, “The Thinkable”, The New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2003.
6. Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin, “Libyan Arms Designs Traced Back to China,” Washington Post, February 15, 2004; p. A01, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A42692-2004Feb14.html.
8. Tom Zeller, “Psssst…Can I Get A Bomb Trigger?”, (case overviews compiled by Jordan Richie and Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control) The New York Times, September 15, 2002.
9. Reuters, “China Helping Iran, North Korea on Weapons – Panel”, The New York Times, June 15, 2004.