While explaining the rationale for Pakistan’s nuclear programme, its former Prime Minister ZA Bhutto noted that while the Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilisations had nuclear weapons capabilities, it was the Islamic civilisation alone that did not possess nuclear weapons. He asserted that he would be remembered as the man who had provided the Islamic civilisation with “full nuclear capability”.

Bhutto’s views on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons contributing to the capabilities of the Islamic civilisation were shared by Pakistan’s senior nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mehmood who, along with his colleague Chaudhri Abdul Majeed, was detained shortly after the terrorist strikes of 9/11. They were both charged with helping the al-Qaeda acquire nuclear and biological weapons capabilities.

It all started with China

The original sinner in nuclear proliferation, however, is not Pakistan, but China. The director of the Wisconsin Project of Arms Control Gary Milhollin has commented: “If you subtract China’s help from the Pakistani nuclear programme, there is no Pakistani nuclear programme.” There is evidence, including hints from Bhutto’s prison memoirs, which suggests that China initially agreed to help Pakistan develop nuclear weapons when Bhutto visited Beijing in 1976.

It is now acknowledged that by 1983 China had supplied Pakistan with enough enriched uranium for two weapons and the designs for a 25 kilotonne bomb. Chinese support for the Pakistan programme is believed to have included a quid pro quo in the form of Pakistan providing China the designs of centrifuge enrichment plants. Interestingly, thanks to China, Pakistan acquired a nuclear arsenal at least five years before India decided to cross the nuclear threshold.

China’s assistance to Pakistan continued even after Beijing acceded to the NPT. When Pakistan’s enrichment programme faced problems in 1995, China supplied Pakistan 5,000 ring magnets. China has subsequently supplied Pakistan with unsafeguarded plutonium processing facilities at Khushab. There is also evidence that, over time, China has supplied Pakistan with a range of nuclear weapons designs.

Warhead designs

While the nuclear weapons designs supplied to Libya by AQ Khan were of a Chinese warhead tested in the 1960s, the nuclear warheads tested by Pakistan in 1998 were of a different design. The nuclear manuals given by Khan were in Mandarin and were handed over to the Libyans reportedly in the shopping bag of Khan’s Rawalpindi tailor!

According to Thomas Reed, former secretary of the US air force who was closely associated with the US nuclear weapons establishment, a Pakistani derivative of the Chinese CHIV-4 nuclear bomb was tested by Pakistan in China on May 26, 1990. This was eight years before India’s own nuclear tests. Reed has disclosed that “in 1982, China’s Premier Deng Xiao Ping began the transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan”.

Moreover, after warmly welcoming Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Beijing in 1988, Deng commenced missile collaboration with Pakistan with the supply of short range Hatf 2 missiles. This was followed up by assistance to manufacture the Shaheen 1 (750 km range) and the Shaheen 2 (1500-2000 km range) at Fatehjang. China has thus not only provided Pakistan assistance for manufacturing nuclear weapons, but also for missiles, which can target population centres across India.

Not satisfied with providing nuclear weapons designs, know-how and modern uranium enrichment centrifuges, China soon found that Pakistan’s arsenal would become more potent if it included lighter plutonium warheads, so that they combine with Chinese designed ballistic missiles. The entire Fatehjang-Chashma-Khushab nuclear complex in Pakistan, filled with Chinese nuclear power reactors, plutonium reactors and reprocessing facilities can well be described as a standing monument to China-Pakistan nuclear and missile proliferation.

The Saudi Arabian connection

There is an interesting parallel in the approach of Pakistan and China in nuclear and missile proliferation in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia’s defence minister Prince Sultan was given unprecedented access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities in Kahuta in March 1999. In November, AQ Khan paid a visit to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of Prince Sultan, after which Saudi scientists were invited Khan to visit Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.

Given these developments, there is interest and speculation about the precise direction that nuclear and missile collaboration among Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia could take. Pakistan could, for example, justify deployment of nuclear weapons and missiles on Saudi soil. It is not without significance that the chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff committee Gen Khalid Shamim Wynne, who handles its nuclear arsenal, was received at a high level in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, while Pakistan provided the designs of nuclear centrifuges to Iran over two decades ago, China is known to have been in the forefront of the transfer of ballistic missile know-how and technology to Tehran.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj raised the question of Beijing issuing stapled visas to Indian nationals visiting China during the recent visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, by pointedly calling on China to adopt a “One India” policy. While China issues these to Indians from Arunachal Pradesh and opposes international funding for projects in Jammu and Kashmir, it warmly welcomes high functionaries from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan.

Members of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army have, in recent years, been involved in building roads and tunnels in Gilgit-Baltistan. The construction work is said to be for a transportation corridor linking China to the Arabian Sea at Gwadar port. But, tunnels across high mountain slopes are also ideal locations for nuclear weapons silos.

India has unfortunately not taken up with Beijing its concerns about China-Pakistan missile and nuclear collaboration. This challenge surely needs to be more seriously addressed, both diplomatically and strategically.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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