Last month Beijing confirmed its plans to sell a new 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor to Pakistan in a deal signed in February. This pact was secretly concluded between the China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission during the visit of Pakistani nuclear industry officials to Beijing from February 15 to 18. This sale would once again violate China’s commitment to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and is in contravention to China’s promise in 2004 while joining the NSG not to sell additional reactors to Pakistan’s Chashma nuclear facility beyond the two reactors that began operation in 2000 and 2011.
While this issue is likely to come up for discussion at the June meeting of the NSG in Prague, Beijing has already made it clear that nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan “does not violate relevant principles of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.” This when the CNNC is not merely constructing civilian reactors in Chashma, it is also developing Pakistan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing capabilities and working to modernise Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. At a time when concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear programme are causing jitters around the world, China has made its intentions clear to go all out in helping Pakistan’s nuclear development. At a time when many in India are contemplating a new bonhomie in Sino-Indian ties under the new Chinese leadership, China is busy trying its best to maintain nuclear parity between India and Pakistan. After all, this is what China has been doing for the last five decades. Based on their convergent interests vis-à-vis India, China and Pakistan reached a strategic understanding in mid-1950s, a bond that has only strengthened ever since.
Sino- Pakistan ties gained particular momentum in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war when the two states signed a boundary agreement recognising Chinese control over portions of the disputed Kashmir territory and since then the ties have been so strong that the Chinese President Hu Jintao has described the relationship as “higher than mountains and deeper than oceans.” Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, has suggested that “No relationship between two sovereign states is as unique and durable as that between Pakistan and China.” Maintaining close ties with China has been a priority for Islamabad and Beijing has provided extensive economic, military and technical assistance to Pakistan over the years.
It was Pakistan that in the early 1970s enabled China to cultivate its ties with the West and the US in particular, becoming the conduit for Henry Kissinger’s landmark secret visit to China in 1971 and has been instrumental in bringing China closer to the larger Muslim world. Over the years China emerged Pakistan’s largest defence supplier. Military cooperation between the two has deepened with joint projects producing armaments ranging from fighter jets to guided missile frigates.
China is a steady source of military hardware to the resource-deficient Pakistani Army. It has not only given technology assistance to Pakistan but has also helped Pakistan set up mass weapons production factories. But what has been most significant is China’s major role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, emerging as Pakistan’s benefactor at a time when increasingly stringent export controls in Western countries made it difficult for Pakistan to acquire materials and technology from elsewhere. The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme is essentially an extension of the Chinese one.
Despite being a member of the NPT, China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear materials and expertise and has provided critical assistance in the construction of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Although China has long denied helping any nation attain a nuclear capability, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, Abdul Qadeer Khan, himself has acknowledged the crucial role China has played in his nation’s nuclear weaponisation by gifting 50 kilogrammes of weapon grade enriched uranium, drawing of the nuclear weapons and tonnes of uranium hexafluoride for Pakistan’s centrifuges. This is perhaps the only case where a nuclear weapon state has actually passed on weapons grade fissile material as well as a bomb design to a non-nuclear weapon state.
India has been the main factor that has influenced China and Pakistan’s policies vis-à-vis each other. Whereas Pakistan wants to gain access to civilian and military resources from China to balance the Indian might in the subcontinent, China, viewing India as potential challenger in the strategic landscape of Asia, views Pakistan as its central instrument to counter Indian power in the region.
The China-Pakistan partnership serves the interests of both by presenting India with a potential twofront theatre in the event of war with either country. In their own ways, each is using the other to balance India as India’s disputes with Pakistan keep India preoccupied failing to attain its potential as a major regional and global player. China meanwhile guarantees the security of Pakistan when it comes to its conflicts with India, thus preventing India from using its much superior conventional military strength against Pakistan. Not surprisingly, one of the central pillars of Pakistan’s strategic policies for the last more than four decades has been its steady and ever-growing military relationship with China. And preventing India’s dominance of South Asia by strengthening Pakistan has been a strategic priority for China.
But with India’s ascent in global hierarchy and American attempts to carve out a strong partnership with India, China’s need for Pakistan is only likely to grow. A rising India makes Pakistan all the more important for Chinese strategy for the subcontinent. It’s highly unlikely that China will give up playing the Pakistan card vis-à-vis India anytime soon. Indian policy makers would be well advised to disabuse themselves of the notion of a Sino-Indian convergence in managing Pakistan. China doesn’t do sentimentality in foreign policy, and India should follow suit.
“But with India’s ascent in global hierarchy and American attempts to carve out a strong partnership with India, China’s need for Pakistan is only likely to grow. A rising India makes Pakistan all the more important for Chinese strategy for the subcontinent. It’s highly unlikely that China will give up playing the Pakistan card vis-à-vis India anytime soon”, says the author.