Recent revelations in the Abdul Qadeer Khan affair indicate that, with Chinese complicity, Pakistan developed a nuclear proliferation chain involving North Korea, Iran, Libya and nuclear suppliers in Europe and Malaysia. With Pakistan now the hub of international terrorism as well as nuclear proliferation, the country presents a dangerous mix in a volatile area that has become a geopolitical center of international gravity. Following the starting revelations about Dr. Khan’s proliferation role, Pakistan has come under international pressure to cap its nuclear and missile capabilities. Efforts to inspect Pakistan’s nuclear program must also extend to Karachi’s relations with China and North Korea, as these two countries have provided missiles or crucial parts to Pakistan in the past. In fact, nuclear data uncovered by American inspectors in Libya made its way into the hands of the Qaddafi regime from China via Pakistan. While the United States has stepped up efforts to turn China’s proliferation practices around, success has been limited due to China’s determination to view proliferation in the context of its long term strategic policies toward the United States and India.
China has a long-standing proliferation policy, one developed during the Cold War and based on its own geopolitical assessments and national interests rather than on nonproliferation norms, international agreements and laws. While the United States busily chased Soviet Russia on a bipolar basis, China was active in laying the groundwork for a North (Chinese)-South (Pakistan and the Middle East) axis. Seeing Pakistan as a critical gateway, a channel by which to move both conventional and nuclear armament, Beijing sought to serve Pakistani military needs in order to maintain a line of pressure against India (a Chinese interest in the context of its military confrontation with New Delhi). At the same time, Pakistan acted as China’s gateway into the Middle East when confrontations with the United States left Beijing a pariah in international circles. Reputedly a moderate Muslim country, Pakistan sought a role as the interlocutor for the United Kingdom and the United States in the Middle East, and China saw the value in this line of thinking. Ironically, in the early 1950s the U.S. Department of State promoted Pakistan as a leading voice in the Middle East to fight Soviet and Indian “imperialism,” giving military and diplomatic aid to service this policy. In hindsight, the United States gained little from this approach while China has effectively used Pakistan as its channel into select Middle Eastern countries since the 1960s. The literature shows the chronology and pattern of Chinese supply relations to Pakistan and the Middle East.
But China also has a non-proliferation posture that is of recent vintage. As part of its effort to join the global mainstream it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1993, stopped testing after accepting the comprehensive test ban in 1996, ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 and agreed to follow the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime, though it did not formally join. In addition to its international obligations, China has in recent years developed a nuclear and missile export control regime. Its Foreign Ministry has an active arms control and disarmament section and along with new Chinese think tanks promotes the image of China as a dedicated arms controller and good world citizen. The Foreign Ministry claims that in “recent years, China has adopted a series of measures to step up its control of the export of such technology” and “therefore, any suggestion or allegation accusing China of proliferation is baseless.”
However, evidence of selective Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation, including missile transfers (M-11 and M-9 and parts) and nuclear test data to Pakistan and the Middle East, cast serious doubt on this claim. It could be that, given the compartmentalized and secretive nature of the Chinese decision making apparatus, the Foreign Ministry simply does not know the whole truth about the situation. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and its companies have handled military exports with apparent Party approval –but not necessarily Foreign Ministry– in the past. As is widely known, the PLA is a state within the state. The skilled use of deception is a part of Chinese history and political culture and, in the judgment of this author, the Foreign Ministry claim falls in that category.
Be that as it may, China’s proliferation and nonproliferation activities are both driven by geopolitical calculations. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, China and Pakistan acted collectively to achieve a common cause in the strategic Asian triangle: Containment of India. China, not the United States, has been Pakistan’s main supplier of conventional and nuclear armament, and Beijing was recognized by the Pakistani elite and public opinion as a reliable friend, even though the United States provided better quality military equipment and offered significant support during the 1971 war. Moreover, Chinese armament suited the rugged subcontinent terrain and the local operating conditions.
Furthermore, China has in the past lent diplomatic support to Pakistan’s policy of promoting Kashmiri self-determination. By not coordinating maps with India regarding the line of actual control in the Himalayas, China kept about 40 percent of the Indian armed forces pinned on the China front and unavailable for military action against Pakistan. China has also supported Pakistani claims regarding the danger of Indian “hegemony” against its smaller neighbors, spreading anti-India sentiment in the subcontinent. After the 1998 Indian nuclear tests, China repeatedly insisted on Indian nuclear disarmament while continuing to promote its proliferation work with Pakistan and the Muslim world. These actions sought Indo-Pakistani polarity and parity and the undermining of India’s regional and international influence.
But China has read the changing geopolitical tea leaves carefully. Faced with evidence of an assertive America, the growth of India’s regional power and coercive diplomacy, and the prospect of a U.S.-India strategic alignment–one that affects the distribution of power as well as the pattern of relationships in Asia and the Middle East–China is now in a damage limiting mode. Rebuilding its links with India and distancing itself from Pakistan, Chinese policy in the subcontinent has put into play a number of considerations. First, Pakistan cannot fight and win against India. The history of Indo-Pakistani wars shows that, while the military remains the biggest political organization in Pakistan, it cannot win wars. During the 1999 Kargil campaign, the Pakistani political establishment, along with the United States, quickly advised Pakistan’s military command to deal with India bilaterally and peacefully.
Second, India’s position as an emerging force in global economic and strategic affairs is sure only to increase in the future. Third, Beijing fears the danger of an anti-Chinese alignment, with American, Indian and Israeli defense cooperation indicating a rise of institutionalized inter-service cooperation involving anti-terrorism, naval cooperation, military training, high technology military transfers and high level political and armed services meetings. Japan’s changing defense policy also brings into play the possibility of “encirclement” in a worst-case scenario. Finally, China has publicly complained about terrorist training camps in Pakistan as significant Muslim minorities attracted to Osama bin Laden’s message pose a threat to China’s border areas. A rapidly changing Asia has forced Chinese comrades and generals to rethink their policies towards India and Pakistan.
China’s dream to co-supervise the subcontinent with the United States–which the Clinton administration appeared to accept–has come unstuck with the changing pattern of U.S.-Indian alignment. Themes of strategy and democracy have brought the United States, Israel and India together in an effort to create an arc of long term stability from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent, right up to the south China seas and Southeast Asia. A hotbed of international terrorism, this area has long been a point of friction and engagement between China and India as well as between China and the United States.
So long as India and the West were at odds, the China-Pakistan versus India triangle had force. But shifts in the strategic context have forced China to act quickly by adapting to a changing region and re-thinking its geopolitical calculations in relation to its Asian neighbors. If the United States succeeds in capping Pakistan’s nuclear and missile program as a result of the Khan affair, and if Beijing’s strategists can redo their geopolitical calculations, China’s pro-proliferation policy may change. But the change will almost certainly be slow, working against some forty years of proliferation inertia.