Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 6

by M. D. Nalapat

Despite the hype about nuclear weapons being created in high school laboratories, the reality is that the fabrication of a usable bomb requires a mix of both talent and infrastructure that is available to few states. In terms of purchasing power parity, India is today the fourth biggest economy in the world. It has tens of millions of trained technicians and an industrial base that dates back to the period when the country was under British rule. However, India struggled for two decades before weaponizing the nuclear device it exploded in 1974. Equally difficult was its missile odyssey. Forty years elapsed before the 1500-kilometer Agni-III was developed from early rockets.

Neither Pakistan nor, to an even greater extent, North Korea, can lay claim to having anything but the most rudimentary indigenous technological base. The domain of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has as yet proved unable to design and manufacture a truly local high speed lathe, let alone a tractor, while North Korea has not exceeded bicycle manufacturing. Yet both countries have succeeded in “developing” nuclear devices as well as sophisticated missiles that can reach over a thousand kilometers carrying a weapons payload. How such technologically backward countries could reach “university” status without having been able to pass “high-school” is a question rarely heard in discussions of their respective strategic weapons capabilities. Yet that query is essential to understanding the reality behind the current nuclear status of these failed (Pyongyang) and failing (Islamabad) economies.

Both Pakistan and North Korea are examples of what may be termed “proxy” nuclear weapons powers. That is, they are countries that have deliberately been provided with nuclear devices and missiles systems by an advanced country, the People’s Republic of China (through agencies directly or otherwise linked to it). It is no accident that Pyongyang acts as a geopolitical pressure point on Japan, as Pakistan does on India. Japan and India, after all, are Beijing’s two primary rivals in Asia. As nuclear capable, missile producing states, North Korea and Pakistan–the two proxies–demand the attention of Japan and India, thus lowering the attention that they can pay to China, the source of the proxies’ technology.

Today, the need to deal with Pakistan is keeping India boxed up, while Japan is increasingly finding itself in a similar position with regard to North Korea. And, ironically, both are being compelled–as is the United States–to appeal for help to the PRC, the very country that is responsible for converting Pakistan and North Korea into states with ever more sophisticated missile systems and nuclear devices.

Traditional deterrence theory holds that fear of the damage caused by a retaliatory strike would inhibit a nuclear weapons power from launching a first strike against another nuclear state. The absence of a “hot” war between the Soviet Union and the United States throughout the Cold War has been taken as evidence that such a theory works. However, what would happen in the event that a nuclear state secretly armed another with workable systems, and then goaded it into attacking the nuclear state’s rival? Even the destruction of the “proxy” nuclear state by a retaliatory strike would leave unpunished the actual source of the aggression, which is the country that supplied the strategic offensive capability to the proxy. In a period that has seen the emergence of the Taliban, a cluster of individuals who may actually see death (or martyrdom) as a desirable outcome, such a question assumes more than theoretical significance. In several countries around the world–including Pakistan and North Korea–the emergence of a “Talibanized” regime is no longer an impossibility.

One antidote is the (much-maligned) U.S. plan for a National Missile Defense system, particularly if its reach were extended to protect U.S. allies. This might provide a means to intercept missiles launched by a proxy power. Indeed, the emergence of the two “proxy” nuclear weapons states, North Korea and Pakistan, has reinforced the wisdom of developing an antimissile missile defense system.

This by itself is not enough, however. Just as it did in Iraq, the United Nations Security Council must aggressively investigate just how the “new” nuclear or missile states (that is, those that have conducted their nuclear explosions or missile tests over the past twenty-five years) were able to acquire such systems. Any country opposing such a resolution would be vulnerable to the charge that it has something to conceal. The UN needs first to expose any instances in which technology specific to the manufacture of nuclear weapons (or devices) and missiles with a range over 150 kilometers has been transferred. It must then outlaw the practice, and subject delinquent states to mandatory sanctions.

The dearth of public knowledge about such systems is attested to by the numerous media commentaries that have appeared regarding the possibility of terrorists gaining access to technologies that would enable them to create “suitcase” bombs. In fact, such miniaturized weapons would demand skills unavailable at present in any country other than the United States and perhaps–still–in Russia. The crude devices known to have been produced by Pakistan and, possibly, by North Korea, require several tons of cladding to ensure safe storage and detonation. They are therefore too heavy to be put on platforms and used as weapons. It is essential to ensure that any country which has transferred the technology required to build these near-weapons does not continue the practice and aid in converting such nuclear devices into nuclear weapons capable of being launched from air, sea or land platforms. A failure to stop such practices raises the danger that the proxies may themselves assist other “sub-proxy” states, which would, in turn, create an unstable and growing chain of weaponizing states.

Today, the People’s Republic of China has begun experiencing “blowback” from its clandestine, often indirect assistance to the strategic programs of North Korea and Pakistan, just as the United States is tasting the bitter fruit of its frenzied arming of Islamist radicals worldwide during the Afghan jihad (1980-89). But developing the capability of two allies to move from the “device” to the “weapons” stage would put China’s own security at risk. And just as there was no guarantee that a jihadist trained to battle the Soviets would not someday attack the West, so there can be no certainty that a future regime in Islamabad or Pyongyang may not lash out at its former benefactor in Beijing–just as Vietnam did against China soon after it was unified in the 1970s. However, China now faces a dilemma: Suddenly turning off the technological tap will have the effect of souring relations, as seems already to be happening between Beijing and Pyongyang. But the Chinese now see even this possibility as preferable to a policy of continuing secret support for the North Korean and Pakistani missile and nuclear programs that are aimed at keeping Japan and India distracted.

The nonproliferation regime crafted with such care over the past quarter century has two holes in it. The first is the possibility that a country might develop its own weapons and delivery systems, as India has so painfully done. The other is the reality that each of the five “legitimate” nuclear weapons states effectively operates outside the regime of inspections or controls. As a consequence, any one of the “big five” can itself turn outlaw by secretly providing help to states that, without such assistance, would lack the capacity to go nuclear. And while the role played in the ascent of Pakistan and North Korea by Chinese-controlled entities is no longer secret (as is also the case now of cooperation between these two beneficiaries), the failure by the United States to make Beijing pay a price for its actions has emboldened Moscow to join the parade. Indeed, Russia is now gingerly venturing along the same road trodden by China, albeit for financial rather than geopolitical reasons.

In fact, Beijing’s policy of lighting a fire and then offering to distinguish it has bought it influence rather than sanction. That is, China now finds itself beseeched to help put out the very same flames that it itself fanned. Today, Beijing is being deluged by envoys from the United States pleading for China to “do more” to restrain Pyongyang. This situation is analogous to what took place after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the Bush administration inexplicably turned to the patron of the Taliban–Pakistan’s army–to capture al Qaeda leaders. Not surprisingly, almost all have escaped. Equally unsurprisingly, the kid glove treatment given to both Beijing and Pyongyang is leading the Bush team to reprise “Clinton Medicine”–that is, to produce action which looks good on CNN, but which has zero longterm positive effect.

Rather than ducking the question of how North Korea could have developed missiles and nuclear devices when it is incapable of manufacturing a decent bicycle, those countries with a stake in international stability need to ensure that two things happen. First, that that every route to crossborder proliferation gets plugged. And second, that those countries–no matter how powerful–which are guilty of transferring strategic technologies and materiel are not pandered to, but rather feel the full weight of international opprobrium and sanctions.

Professor M. D. Nalapat is director of the School of Geopolitics of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.