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China- Pakistan relations: Friendly Nuclear Neighbours By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

C3S Paper No. 0045/ 2015


On February 9th, a Chinese official has publicly confirmed that China is involved in as many as six nuclear power projects in Pakistan and is likely to export more reactors to the country.

What is the significance of the background of events that have led to the present day China- Pakistan nuclear alliance? What are the implications of this partnership for the region? How may China be involved in the nuclear weapons capability of Pakistan? How can nuclear laws regulate the use of these weapons and the nuclear plants that produce them?

A foundation set in stone

Chinese-Pakistani nuclear cooperation began in 1971[1], under an opaque lens which apparently drew light from the Bangladesh Liberation war. The trend of nuclear assistance clearly indicates that China desired Pakistan to be a nuclear weapons state long before peaceful nuclear technology was on the bilateral agenda. For instance, in 1983, US intelligence agencies reported that China had transferred a complete nuclear weapon design to Pakistan, along with enough weapons-grade uranium for two nuclear weapons.[2] This was followed by reports in 1986 that Chinese scientists had begun assisting Pakistan with the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium, and China also transferred enough tritium gas to Pakistan for 10 nuclear weapons.1 This deal was juxtaposed with the Comprehensive Nuclear Cooperation Agreement which came into force in the November of 1986- the same time Operation Brasstacks was launched in Rajasthan. One possibility behind the Indian military’s maneuver is said to be fears over Pakistan acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

On the other hand China encouraged the strengthening of the Pakistani nuclear establishment on both military and civilian fronts. It heralded an era where China and Pakistan launched nuclear cooperation initiatives as a reactive strategy towards India. It is observed that China and Pakistan use their nuclear deals as subtle messages to send across the border in the subcontinent whenever Delhi crosses a significant milestone, as studied in this section.

For instance, China supplied the Chashma -1 reactor in 1991, coinciding not only with the end of the Cold War, but also with India’s economic liberalization.  No doubt, the Chashma-1 deal would have served to pacify both Pakistan and China as they witnessed India’s entry into the globalized world economy.  China joined the Non Proliferation Treaty a year later. By this time, China had may have assisted Pakistan to be well on its way to the 1998 nuclear test, which immediately followed India’s nuclear testing. A classic case of the stability-instability paradox is observed in the 1999 Kargil War. This means Pakistan acted upon its potential to be involved in relatively low level conflicts, given that it felt safe from large scale retaliatory attack as it has nuclear weapons.

Almost a decade later, in 2005, China began to provide Pakistan with a second nuclear reactor, Chashma-2. This was a year after Hu Jinatao’s government acceded to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Indo- U.S nuclear deal discussions were on the table. Interestingly, it was also the year India was making significant economic progress, with a GDP growth of 9% to boast of.

Although the new NSG member agreed to not make new deals with non-members of the Non Proliferation Treaty who did not accept full- scope safeguards, in 2010, the country’s China National Nuclear Cooperation announced it would export technology for two new 650 MW reactors, Chashma-3 and Chashma-4 to Pakistan.  It defended its actions by stating that these projects were “grandfathered” under previous agreements, thus not making them fresh agreements. Again, Delhi seemed to be the focal point, as Russia signed a nuclear deal with India in the same year to build sixteen reactors in India. At this point, the nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan has been no longer in the area of security mainly, but in the energy and commercial fields, while being fully under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.[3] News of other deals has since followed, including a November 2013 announcement that China would help build two reactors in Karachi, KANUPP 2 and KANUPP-3, and a January 2014 report about talks on three other reactors.[4] Pakistani officials say this is part of broader plans to produce around 8,800 megawatts of electricity from nuclear power by 2030 and overcome crippling power shortages that plague the nation.4 It is observed that the 2013 deal was declared shortly after India’s Mars Orbiter Mission was launched.

The recent Chinese acknowledgement of its nuclear cooperation with Islamabad has been made not only in light of recent progress made in the India- U.S nuclear deal or President Xi’s impending visit to Pakistan. China stands a crucial juncture at this moment of time. It is witnessing an emerging India across the border. Delhi has set its sights firmly on upgrading its navy’s nuclear capabilities in view of China’s military modernization .Beijing is also expanding its interests in the Indian Ocean and needs its all- weather friends in Islamabad to continue the strong strategic partnership, including its Gwadar rendezvous. Beijing’s candid declaration of its atomic relationship with Pakistan will serve well to remind India and U.S.A of the Dragon’s looming shadow over the region. Interestingly there is an alteration in China’s discreet proliferation policy across the continent.

The nuclear curtain falls

This policy is said to be earlier dictated by a school of thought, whereby China carried out a tactical plan of assisting a nuclear capable Pakistan to spread its influence in the broader region of West Asia and Northeast Asia. A.Q Khan’s admissions and other reports stated that Pakistan was exporting nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and possibly even Saudi Arabia. The advantage China gained by this move was that U.S.A’s sphere of influence in these regions could be contained. It would balance America’s nuclear umbrella given to South Korea as well as stand as a deterrent to U.S.A’s staunch allies in Tel Aviv, without directly implicating China.

However there is now said to be an alteration in the hidden proliferation policy. China actively urges North Korea and Iran against nuclear weapons proliferation. The flammability of nuclear weapons power in these countries causes the peacefully rising power unrest. There are also other factors to be considered, such as the increasing spate of terror attacks in Pakistan, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, fears of WMD proliferation by rogue elements in the Middle East, and especially the threat of terror attacks based from Xinjiang province.  Nevertheless, one constant is said to remain, and that is that China with a No First Use policy uses a First Use Policy wielding Pakistan as a proxy deterrent against India. A strong nuclear weapons state in Pakistan is thus in China’s strategic interest.

A platonic plutonium friendship

China is the only supplier of nuclear power plants and components to Pakistan, the latter being a non-signatory to the NPT. There are several Chinese assisted sites in Pakistan where weapons grade nuclear material is being produced. China reportedly provided assistance to the construction of the Chashma plutonium reprocessing facility in the 1990s.2 According to a 1996 CIA report, the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation sold technology intended for the Khushabh facility. [5]  This Khushabh facility is expected to bring more plutonium production reactors online and thus increase Pakistan’s plutonium stocks. Pakistan currently has a stockpile of 150 ± 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, with the ability to produce approximately 12 to 24 kg per year.[6] There are three new Khushabh reactors which will be able to produce enough plutonium for over 12 nuclear weapons per year. [7]  These three new reactors will roughly double Pakistan’s present annual ability to build nuclear weapons to about 19-26 nuclear weapons per year. It is clear that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is increasing at a pace faster than any other country and now is reported to have more nuclear weapons than that of India, with an arsenal of 100-110 warheads. In fact, by 2020 the struggling economy is reportedly projected to have, a stockpile of fissile material that, if weaponized, could produce as many as 200 nuclear devices.

There is an opacity of the figures of the weapons-producing capability of all Chinese assisted nuclear plants in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the political significance of plutonium cannot be undermined. Cheaper than uranium and more potent, it is an arresting resource for Pakistan. This creates a volatile situation in the backdrop of Pakistan’s “asymmetric escalation posture.” [8] This means that Pakistan intends to deter conventional attack by threatening an attacker with rapid escalation to a nuclear counter-attack. The sensitive relations between India and Pakistan, as well as Pakistan’s volatile domestic setup, thus demand recourse to legal provisions for ensuring stability in the region.

The laws of nuclear attraction

Pakistan is vulnerable to terrorist attacks on its military establishments. Several Pakistani nuclear facilities, including the Khushab facility and the Gadwal uranium enrichment plant, are in proximity to areas under attack from the Taliban. It is thus slightly reassuring that in January, the International Atomic Energy Agency conveyed satisfaction that Pakistan has implemented the nuclear safeguards agreement. Pakistan has been operating nuclear power plants under the IAEA safeguards for over forty years. While it is known that several nuclear facilities in Pakistan are under safeguards, such as the Chashma-1 and Chashma-2, several key nuclear weapons-related facilities are not subject to IAEA inspections. These include the uranium related facilities at Khan Research Laboratory, Golra, Sinhala and Gadwal. Similarly the Khushabh plutonium nuclear reactor is also not subject to international safeguards. However these facilities are under the scrutiny of the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of the National Command Authority. There is a possibility that Chinese pressure may have had a role to play in the observed improvements undertaken by the SPD in the last decade.

The personnel reliability program has received particular attention. For instance, personnel are screened periodically for their political affiliations and inclinations. Pakistan is under serious discussions with U.S.A on how to re-employ alumni of its nuclear establishment, perhaps in light of the A.Q. Khan affair. In the wake of the Khan scandal, many of the procedures and regulations were consolidated in 2004 in the Export Control Act, enacted to control the exports of goods, technologies, materials, and equipment related to nuclear weapons and delivery systems.[9]

In the context of bilateral relations with India, there exist differences in laws articulated for nuclear defense forces. For example, Pakistan is the only country blocking negotiations of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Islamabad demands that FMCT should encompass plans to eliminate existing stockpiles, rather than prevent creation of new stockpiles. Pakistan believed the present FMCT clauses legitimize India’s existing fissile material stocks. While this disagreement prevails, there does exist a commendable list of Confidence Building Measures between Delhi and Islamabad. [10]

On the international front, Pakistan cooperates with IAEA for implementing safeguards on certain civilian facilities, training of personnel and participating in the IAEA Illicit Trafficking Database. Pakistan also cooperates with U.S.A on improving nuclear security. However this does not extend to safety of nuclear weapons, given Pakistan’s insistence on secrecy over its nuclear WMD facilities.

Pakistan may believe this concealment to be its traditional right. However China bears a responsibility in ensuring the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. After all, Beijing is the only trusted source of advice in Islamabad. India must gently remind the oriental power to maintain full-scope safeguards in all nuclear transactions with Pakistan in order to maintain the security of the entire region. Any accidental or terrorist explosion will have repercussions rippling beyond Pakistan. China, India, Afghanistan, Central Asia and even the Middle East will be extremely vulnerable in such a situation.  It takes a very small leak or slip-up in precautions to trigger a nuclear catastrophe.

Nevertheless, nuclear power is only one per cent incineration and ninety-nine per cent political perseveration. Despite the high politics involved, China realizes that it must learn to accept India’s parallel growth curve. For instance, it has invited Delhi to be part of the Maritime Silk Route. Such developments show that the nuclear cooperation with Pakistan serves as a behind-the-scenes strategy while trade takes the main stage. Ironically, the nuclear policies of China, Pakistan and India serve as deterrents against each other and a factor for peace, thus facilitating the environment for commercial convergences. The recent public acceptance by China of its nuclear assistance to Pakistan can hence be defined as a political move, and not a strategic threat. It signifies that the Beijing-Islamabad nuclear axis seeks to balance the Indo-U.S partnership in the region. Interestingly, the India- Sri Lanka nuclear accord was announced a few days after the Chinese declaration. It is commendable that the Palk Strait neighbours are candid on their declarations of safety measures. China too must be open about the safeguards it takes while signing atomic pacts with Pakistan, for instance on dual use technology. Beijing will do well to remember that it has the indispensable duty of taking all precautions in its nuclear partnership with Pakistan to ensure long term stability in the subcontinent.

 Reference: 

[1] Siddharth Ramana. “China Pakistan Nuclear Alliance”  Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 2011. Retrieved from http://www.ipcs.org/pdf_file/issue/SR109.pdf

[2] “China’s Nuclear Exports and Assistance to Pakistan.” Center for Nonproliferation Studies . August 1999. Retrieved from http://cns.miis.edu/archive/country_india/china/npakpos.htm

[3] Zhang Jiegen. “China Pakistan Nuclear Relations after the Cold War and its International Implications” Institute of International Studies Fudan University. Retrieved from http://b.gatech.edu/17KGgc8\

[4] Prashanth Parameswaran. (2015 Feb) China Confirms Pakistan Nuclear Projects. The Diplomat. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2015/02/china-confirms-pakistan-nuclear-projects/

[5]“Khushabh/ Khusab.” Federation of American Scientists. March 2000. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/pakistan/facility/khushab.htm

[6] “Pakistan,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, February 2013. Retrieved from www.fissilematerials.org.

[7] Albright. Fissile Material Stocks of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Institute for Science and International Security, forthcoming.

[8] Sheena Chestnut Greitens, 2014: “Nuclear Proliferation” in John Baylis, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens (Ed.) The Globalization of World Politics- An introduction to international relations. Oxford, United Kingdom. pp 372-386.

[9]Kenneth N.Luongo, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Naeem Salik. “Building Confidence in Pakistan’s Nuclear Security”. Arms Control Association. 2007. Retrieved from http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_12/Luongo

[Asma Masood is Research Associate at Chennai Centre for China Studies. She has worked as an Independent Researcher on International Relations in the Asia Pacific, during which time she published several articles on ethnic, economic and strategic issues. She has also interned at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Her areas of interest are China, South Asia and Dynamics of Foreign Policy. Email id : asma.masood11@gmail.com]

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