Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 13

The abrupt influx of U.S. military forces along China’s western flank has seriously jeopardized Beijing’s interests in Central and South Asia. China is unlikely to be sidelined into acquiescing to the imposition of U.S. political and diplomatic control in the region in general and Pakistan–its military counterweight to India–in particular. Even more threatening is the growing Indo-U.S. military relationship.

Pro-Pakistan Western governments have finally conceded that India’s exasperation with crossborder terrorism and its threat to resort to military action is justified. Beijing, not surprisingly, appears to have sided with Pakistan in asking India to do more to end the current crisis, as though it is responsible. [1] Beijing alone has refrained from mentioning Pakistan as a culpable correspondent. And evidence of Chinese complicity in Pakistan’s conflict with India has begun to surface.

China sees Pakistan as a key element in its South Asian policy. Pakistan is, as one Chinese general put it, “China’s Israel”. This was reinforced, during Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan’s visit to Islamabad on May 15, by a low-ranking Chinese official who said cautiously that China would back Pakistan in any conflict with India. [2] The last six months has seen a spate of bilateral visits by Beijing and Islamabad luminaries. Among the more significant:

  • President Pervez Musharraf to Beijing on December 20,
  • General Mohd Aziz Khan to Beijing from January 14 to 22,
  • some thirty nuclear experts to China for missile and nuclear technology related training at the end of February,
  • AVM officials Shahid Hamid, Javed Pasha and Kaleem Saadat to China in late February and early March,
  • PLA military Intelligence Chief General Xiong Guangkai to Pakistan on March 5.

It is in this light that New Delhi needs to carefully examine a number of interrelated events of May 2002 having a direct bearing on India’s strategic environment in the current Indo-Pak standoff.

Intelligence sources in the subcontinent noted that no sooner had the Chinese foreign minister assured Pakistan of help in its crisis with India, sixteen large trailers rolled over the Kunjerab Pass into Pakistan. Intelligence sources monitoring this movement reported that the convoy moved under the cloak of darkness with an exceptionally large security column supervised by a brigadier general. An unusually high level of security precautions for a routine re-supply of armaments. Obviously it was not carrying a normal load of spares for Chinese aircraft and tanks that were being readied for a possible war with India. What was in the consignment?

There is a plethora of evidence to show that China has colluded with Pakistan to facilitate the latter’s nuclear weapon and missile program.

The only proven missile systems in Pakistan’s inventory are those it received from China: M-11 missiles with conventional warheads and M-9 solid-fuelled missiles that China has engineered to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. Musharraf’s claims aside, it is unlikely that Pakistan has indigenously mated a nuclear warhead to the M-11 missile. First, such a change would have meant starting over from scratch. Furthermore, the pairing has not been validated. No sane military man would induct such an unproven system into service.

This leaves two alternatives.

  • AIRBORNE NUCLEAR STRIKE. An airborne nuclear strike–which requires a comprehensive mix of ECM and ECCM aircraft, nuclear delivery aircraft, aircraft to suppress ground-based air defense systems along the fly path, and a mix of close-in and high-altitude air defense aircraft–does not seem likely. Pakistan’s known inventory would indicate that it is capable of launching only one strike at a time. Attrition during that strike would dictate whether it has any potential for follow up. Probably not.
  • M-9 BASED NUCLEAR MISSILES. If China did indeed give Pakistan M-9s, then Pakistan could have nuclear-armed missiles at hand. The range of these, however, is just under 300 miles. They are reportedly in the lower Hunza region in the very north of the country. Unless they are redeployed to central Pakistan (incidentally under the nose of U.S. CENTCOM), however, the risk they present to India is relatively low.

A viable nuclear strategy, then, for Pakistan, must be based on the M-9 missile.

Assuming that eight to twelve M-9s did in fact arrive in Karachi in 1998, we can determine Pakistan’s inventory. By its own reports, Pakistan has fired three of them for demonstration and training purposes. One each would have been turned over to artillery and technical maintenance for training purposes, and a third to R&D for development. That leaves two to six available for Pakistan’s possible use.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Musharraf ordered that Pakistan’s nuclear weapon assets be relocated. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Beijing favored pulling assets traceable to China back to its territory to avoid compromising its proliferation activities. The Pakistanis, on the other hand, wanted them to remain on Pakistani soil. At the same time, a significant element of the PLA was inducted into Pakistan and deployed in the lower Hunza region for the following several months. A possible reason for this might have been to secure Pakistan’s nuclear assets, including those belonging to China. The PLA force is reported to have been reduced, by early 2002, to only a few hundred troops.

Insofar as the incoming convoy sighted on the Karakoram highway and Gilgit on May 16 are concerned, there are two possible explanations. First, if Pakistan’s missiles were withdrawn into Tibet after September 11, the convoy might have been bringing them back. Second, if the missiles remained on Pakistani soil, the convoy might have been bringing new missiles to replace those spent in testing and development. The special precautions taken for the convoy warrant no other explanation.


Musharraf is playing his nuclear card for an international audience with a view to drawing attention away from the turmoil in Pakistan, to divert domestic public opinion from the deteriorating internal situation and to coerce Washington to intervene on its behalf in Kashmir. He is using both rhetoric and direct nuclear threats. China has either returned Pakistan’s missiles and warheads from their relocation to Tibet or replenished it with more of the same (the M-9). Either way, Pakistan has few nuclear warheads and few ways to use them in a strike. Were India to respond to an attack to any degree, Pakistan would be exposed to annihilation. Musharraf, then, is bluffing, and doing so in the belief that New Delhi will back down.


1. Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan to Indian Minister for External Affairs, Jaswant Singh. People’s Daily.

2. Ahmad Faruqui. China card could yet trump Musharraf. Asia Times Online.


Brigadier Vijai K. Nair VSM (retired) is a defense analyst specializing in nuclear strategy formulation and author of two books, including “Nuclear India.”