A.q. Khan’s China Connection

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 9

When it comes to their friends and allies, the nuclear weapons states have long turned a blind eye or actively supported proliferation, in violation of their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. Geopolitical and national security interests, balance-of-power considerations and alliance commitments always override non-proliferation concerns, norms and laws. China is a case in point. Beijing’s reaction to recent revelations concerning the proliferation activities of Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan has not drawn much attention or analysis, despite the fact that China has been and is likely to remain a source of supplies for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Several recent developments have once again highlighted not only the central role that Beijing has played in the nuclearization of the world’s most volatile regions, but also Dr. Khan’s intimate links with China’s nuclear establishment. Interestingly, the Chinese seem to have been thoroughly beaten in the proliferation game by their own clients and allies – Pakistan and North Korea.

Reacting to reports about the Khan nuclear network, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson urged Islamabad to undertake the investigations “properly” and bring them to a conclusion “quickly.” The Chinese preference for conducting investigations “properly” and ending them “quickly” reveals Beijing’s apprehensions over exposing the Chinese nuclear establishment’s long standing ties with Khan. His numerous visits to China’s nuclear installations over the last three decades and gains accrued to China’s weapons program from the Dutch centrifuge technology stolen by Khan in the mid-1970s are particularly sensitive issues for Beijing. A senior member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) told a Pakistani journalist in early February that “Chinese officials had expressed a desire for the proliferation inquiry to end quickly as they feared that Dr. Khan would publicly detail his network’s ‘China connection,’ thereby embarrassing a crucial ally that Pakistan considers a strategic counterweight to India.”

Thus, in contrast with the stance adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and many other countries that called for a “thorough,” “comprehensive,” “objective and impartial” inquiry into the Khan saga, Beijing obviously fears an open ended inquiry. According to The Nation (February 16, 2004), China’s deputy chief of mission in Islamabad expressed regret over the turning of “Pakistan’s famous scientist Dr. A. Q. Khan from a ‘hero to a zero’ status.” Furthermore, Beijing fully supported General Musharraf’s decision to pardon Dr. Khan for all his “nuclear sins.”

However, China’s initial attempts to play the role of a disinterested, neutral bystander in the fast unraveling nuclear network came to an abrupt halt soon after fresh evidence of the China-Pakistan-Libya nexus turned up in the 55,000 tonnes of nuclear material and documents that Libya turned over to the United States and which was flown to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in early 2004. Apparently, the design that Khan delivered to the Libyans in the shopping bag of his Islamabad tailor was of a Chinese nuclear weapon tested on October 27, 1966. As soon as Libyan arms designs sold by Khan were traced to China, Washington’s leverage over Beijing increased significantly. The evidence provided clinching proof of Beijing’s involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and insights into the state of both Chinese and North Korean nuclear weapons capabilities. It also raised new questions about the extent and nature of Chinese contributions to Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation activities. Although the bomb designs sold to Libya were of a 1960s Chinese vintage, an analysis of Pakistan’s May 1998 nuclear tests reveals that China supplied more advanced nuclear weapons designs of the late 1980s and early 1990s to Pakistan, which may have been shared with other countries. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that Chinese security agencies were unaware of Pakistan’s nuclear dealings with North Korea, Iran and Libya.

In a departure from the past, Beijing did not deny the report on Chinese-Pakistani links with Libya’s nuclear weapons program but launched an “investigation” of its own, while reiterating its non-proliferation commitments. Asked to comment on the Washington Post (February 15, 2004) report about the discovery of some Chinese language documents in Libya giving detailed instructions for assembling an implosion-type nuclear bomb, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhang Qiyue said: “The Chinese side is seriously concerned by the related reports and we are trying to get more information on this issue.” She declined, however, to comment on a Reuters report (February 15, 2004) about U.S. officials’ claim that “China is still helping Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons and missile development despite Beijing’s promises to control arms proliferation.” Since Zhang’s statement of February 17, Beijing has said nothing on the outcome of its “investigation” nor has Washington revealed any more information on Libya’s “China connection.”

Interestingly, almost two weeks later, on March 5, the U.S. State Department declassified government documents on “China, Pakistan, and the Bomb: 1977-1997.” These shed new light on three decades of U.S. concern over China’s nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. According to one of the declassified documents, “China has provided assistance to Pakistan’s program to develop a nuclear weapon capability in the areas of fissile material production and possibly also in nuclear device design.” Soon thereafter, the Bush Administration imposed sanctions against private Chinese entities for proliferation activities.

The proliferation modus operandi – whether in China or Pakistan – remains strikingly similar: first, complete denial and protestations of innocence; second, when that becomes unsustainable in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, denial of state sponsorship; third, shift of responsibility to some rogue individuals or non-state actors, followed by some token “action” against them; fourth, when even this becomes unsustainable or if sanctions are imposed, some stronger action (in the form of new policy guidelines, attribution of responsibility to previous administrations, and “sacrifice” of some individuals to salvage the regime’s reputation) and new assurances to the international community that past proliferation activities have now been “completely and permanently shut down.” This cycle is repeated despite the fact that state accountability cannot be absolved on grounds that proliferation was the result of private enterprise.

Many U.S. officials believe that embarrassing revelations about the transfer of Chinese nuclear weapon designs to Libya and possibly other countries by a Pakistani proliferation network would force Beijing to reevaluate the strategic costs of its proliferation activities in the larger interests of stability in the Middle East and China’s desire to project its image as a responsible great power. Beijing’s recent decision to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group is cited as another indication of China’s desire for full participation in the nonproliferation regime and a move away from the balance-of-power approach that has hitherto characterized its proliferation policy.

However, many long time China-watchers see no evidence of Beijing abandoning its national security strategy based on the principle of “containment through surrogates” that requires proliferation to countries that can countervail its perceived rivals and enemies. Believing that proliferation is inevitable, the Chinese military has long practiced what John Mearsheimer calls “managed proliferation” it calls for providing nuclear or missile technology to China’s friends and allies (Pakistan, Iran, North Korea) so as to contain its rivals through proxies (India in South Asia, the United States in the Middle East and Japan in East Asia). Beijing has also engaged in proliferation to pressure Washington to curb its arms sales to Taiwan.

Many proliferation-watchers believe that China will not stop playing “the proliferation card,” as it is the most powerful bargaining chip Beijing possesses, leaving “the China shop” open for business to a select few. Given the Pakistani nuclear program’s heavy dependence on external suppliers, a complete shutting down of the Khan nuclear bazaar could lead to the progressive degradation of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent – an outcome that Beijing cannot accept because China’s geostrategic interests require a nuclear-armed Pakistan to pin down India. In other words, having made huge strategic investments in Pakistan over the last four decades, China will not remain a mute spectator to the gradual denuclearization of Pakistan. Therefore, Islamabad’s dependence on Beijing for both missiles and nukes will increase, not decrease, if it is to keep up with India.

As in the past, contradictions between Beijing’s grand strategy and nonproliferation objectives, China’s military alliances, and commercial goals will continue to dictate Beijing’s proliferation policy. This tension also explains China’s reluctance to sign on to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative under which countries pledge to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction.