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China-Pakistan nuclear deal: Why the surprise?

June 22, 2010 14:48 IST

It's highly unlikely that China will give up playing the Pakistan card vis-a-vis India anytime soon. Indian policy makers would be well advised to disabuse themselves of the notion of a Sino-Indian rapprochement. China doesn't do sentimentality in foreign policy, India should follow suit, writes Harsh V Pant.

China will reportedly make a statement on its decision to supply two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan during the meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group this week in New Zealand.

The Indian government has suggested it will be trying to call Beijing's bluff by exposing the underlying flaws in China's argument in support of such a deal. New Delhi has also made its reservations known to Beijing through diplomatic channels. But should it really come as a surprise that China is 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-a-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 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 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 to set-up mass weapons production factories. Pakistan's military modernisation process remains dependent on Chinese largesse.

In the last two decades, the two states have been actively involved in a range of joint ventures including the JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft, the K-8 Karakorum advance training aircraft, and the Babur cruise missile, the dimensions of which exactly replicate the Hong Niao Chinese cruise missile. The JF-17 venture is particularly significant given its utility in delivering nuclear weapons.

In a major move for China's indigenous defence industry, China is also supplying its most advanced home-made combat aircraft, the third-generation J-10 fighter jets to Pakistan, in a deal worth around $6 billion. Beijing is helping Pakistan build and launch satellites for remote sensing and communication even as Pakistan is reportedly already hosting a Chinese space communication facility at Karachi.

China has played a major role in the development of Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure and emerged 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 signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear materials and expertise and has provided critical assistance in the construction of Pakistan's nuclear facilities. As has been aptly noted by the non-proliferation expert Gary Milhollin, "If you subtract China's help from Pakistan's nuclear programme, there is no nuclear programme."

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 kilograms of weapons-grade enriched uranium, drawing of the nuclear weapons and tons 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-a-vis each other. Whereas Pakistan wants to gain access to civilian and military resources from China to balance Indian might in the sub-continent, China, viewing India as potential challenger in the strategic landscape of Asia, views Pakistan as it central instrument to counter Indian power in the region.

The China-Pakistan partnership serves the interests of both by presenting India with a potential two front 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 it 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-a-vis India anytime soon. Indian policy makers would be well advised to disabuse themselves of the notion of a Sino-Indian rapprochement. China doesn't do sentimentality in foreign policy, India should follow suit.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College, London.

 

Harsh V Pant