The latest exposure of the close cooperation on nuclear weapons between China and Pakistan in the Washington Post of 13 November is neither new nor particularly sensational. It revealed that in 1982, China “gifted” 50kg of weapons-grade enriched uranium (enough to build at least two nuclear weapons) as well as designs of the nuclear weapon. This special shipment was flown from the Chinese city of Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang province and the site of recent clashes between the Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese) in a Pakistani C-130 aircraft.
In addition, the report, based on a number of documents and letters signed by the discredited Pakistani nuclear metallurgist A. Q. Khan and now in the possession of British journalist Simon Henderson, also divulged that Pakistan “sent 135 C-130 plane-loads of machines, inverters, valves, flow meters, pressure gauges” as well as experts to set up a full-fledged plant based on European-designed centrifuges at Hanzhong in central China. In return, China sent 15 tonnes of uranium hexafluoride as a feedstock for Pakistan’s own centrifuge plant.
Nonetheless, the revelations are significant for a number of reasons. First, these disclosures are the closest to a signed confession that can be expected from Khan, one of the key actors in Pakistan’s murky nuclear weapons programme. Ironically, these documents, which were reportedly acquired by Henderson sometime in 2007, appear to have been unveiled following the release of Khan this year. Had the Pakistani government not released Khan early this year, there is a likelihood that the Henderson documents might not have been made public.
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Second, this is perhaps the only instance where a nuclear weapon state has actually passed on weapons-grade fissile material, in addition to a bomb design, to a non-nuclear weapon state. Thus, the Henderson documents confirm the suspicions that have been regularly voiced by intelligence agencies since the early 1980s. Third, and most curiously, these documents reveal that this is probably the only time that a non-nuclear weapon state (Pakistan) has provided technology to a nuclear weapon state (China) to improve its arsenal.
Finally, it also bares a disturbing trend: nuclear weapon states have played a critical role in the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states. Indeed, ever since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945, horizontal proliferation has been aided and abetted by nuclear weapon states: the US transferred its know-how, weapon design and even some material to its wartime ally Britain; the Soviet Union transferred nuclear technology and expertise to its socialist neighbour China; China in turn passed on its nuclear weapon secrets and weapons material to Pakistan; and Pakistan sold its know-how and technology to at least Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Of course, not all horizontal proliferation has been linear or so straightforward, but in almost all instances of states acquiring nuclear weapons, entities from nuclear weapon states have played a role. Perhaps the best example is Iraq. Although the five original nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UN Security Council condemned Iraq for acquiring nuclear weapon, the weapons-programme dossier submitted by Iraq to the UN Security Council in December 2002 reads like a who’s who of the nuclear weapon states. For instance, among those listed as supplying nuclear-capable missile technology to Baghdad, were nine US companies, apart from US government agencies and laboratories; seven British companies and one French company. In all these cases the nuclear weapon states have absolved themselves of the responsibility of proliferating nuclear weapon technology to non-nuclear weapon states. Predictably then, China’s response to the latest revelations of Beijing’s vital role in building Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is to deny any involvement.
Even if China were to acknowledge its contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, it could always argue that the transfers took place at least 10 years before Beijing formally acceded to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in March 1992, and, therefore, it was not bound by the treaty obligations. While this would be legally accurate, it goes against the spirit of the NPT, especially as China (which was instrumental in passing UN Security Council resolution 1172 condemning the Indian and Pakistani tests in 1998) has joined other nuclear weapon states in calling on the three non-signatories to the NPT (Israel, India and Pakistan) to adhere to the treaty.
This argument and the abovementioned dismal track record, however, challenges the credibility of not only China, but all the other nuclear weapon states within the NPT. It highlights that not only are these nuclear weapon states in violation of their article IV obligations to the NPT (which call for nuclear disarmament), they are also in violation of their obligations not to promote proliferation among non-nuclear weapon states. Thus, these revelations are also likely to have a negative impact on the coming NPT review conference where the five nuclear weapon states were hoping to present themselves as champions of non-proliferation.
Finally, given the state of turmoil in Pakistan, the distinct possibility of “loose nukes” (the unauthorized takeover of one or two nuclear weapons by armed non-state actors), as well as the state of unrest in Xinjiang, it is conceivable that a nuclear weapon built with the Chinese fissile material might find its way back to Urumqi and, perhaps, even be used. That would be the most macabre and tragic irony.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com