Features | Security | South Asia

South Asia’s Nuclear War Risk

China’s planned nuclear reactors sale to Pakistan highlights the risk of war on the Subcontinent. It could also increase it.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has just concluded a visit to China on a trip that attracted particular attention because of Beijing’s contentious plan to sell two nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

There’s nothing new about Zardari visiting China—in fact he’s been a regular guest there since taking office, having travelled to Beijing five times since September 2008. The frequency of the visits (on average about once every about three months) is likely largely aimed at reassuring Chinese policymakers who preferred dealing with his authoritarian predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. But although ostensibly, the latest trip was over whether China will sell the two additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan, the meeting also raises deeper—and in many ways more troubling—questions about the dynamics of Asia’s nuclear proliferation.

China is eager to sell Pakistan additional reactors, having already constructed one 325-Megawatt nuclear power reactor at Chasma (sometimes Chashma), in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, while construction on another should be completed in 2011 or 2012. During a visit by Zardari to Beijing in March 2009, Chinese officials reportedly reaffirmed their commitment to provide two more reactors; this May, two Chinese companies signed a contract to join in construction.

The Chinese government has yet to announce a formal decision to proceed with the transaction. But for several years now, its representatives and Chinese nuclear security experts have claimed that they had agreed to build the two reactors before China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2004, making the sale exempt from NSG rules excluding the sale of nuclear technologies to countries like Pakistan that haven’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (They’ve offered other public defences of the sale, including that Pakistanis desperately need more electricity).

Such protestations haven’t stopped the US, UK and Indian governments from objecting to the sale and disputing Chinese assertions that ‘grandfathering’ exempts any nuclear deals agreed to before a country enters the NSG. But their efforts at pressing Chinese representatives attending the annual NSG plenary meeting in Christchurch late last month didn’t bear any fruit.

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US State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley, speaking last month, indicated that the United States was potentially troubled by the Chinese plan and said it was ‘looking for more information’ from China on what it’s potentially proposing, and stating the deal would need the agreement of the NSG.

But such concerns have failed to move China, with Chinese officials perhaps calculating that Washington and others ultimately won’t try to expel China from the NSG or retaliate in other ways if the sale occurs because they need Beijing’s assistance on other nuclear non-proliferation issues, including Iran and North Korea.

Indeed, when asked about Crowley’s comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang simply told journalists: ‘Civilian and nuclear energy cooperation between China and Pakistan is completely in line with the international obligations of nuclear non-proliferation, and it’s completely for peaceful purposes.’

Off the record, though, Chinese nuclear experts are keen to point to what they view as US hypocrisy over the sale, noting that the United States forced through an exemption for India from NSG guidelines in 2008. In their view, providing comparable nuclear assistance to Pakistan simply helps maintain the nuclear balance in South Asia.

Although China objected to the waiver granted India, it decided not to block the decision as officials didn’t want to risk alienating Indians on an issue of such great importance to New Delhi. This hasn’t stopped China exerting its ‘right’ to respond in kind with Pakistan. But it’s important to note here that Chinese officials don’t appear to have gone to the trouble of securing the consent of all the other NSG members before doing so, unlike the US, which spent years lobbying for its deal. (This deal anyway only succeeded because Russia, France and other countries also wanted to sell nuclear items to India—no one expects a comparable rush to engage in nuclear commerce with Pakistan).

Supporters of granting India but not Pakistan a NSG waiver insist that the two countries’ nuclear proliferation behavior is fundamentally different, and they emphasize New Delhi’s impeccable non-proliferation record, claiming that Indian policies have supported the principles underlying the NPT, if not the treaty itself. They also note the country’s comprehensive nuclear export control system, the congruence between India’s export guidelines and lists with those of the NSG and the Missile Technology Control Regime, and New Delhi’s commitments in its nuclear energy deal with the United States to place all future civilian reactors under international safeguards.

The view among Western governments about both Pakistan’s will and capacity is markedly different—and not without some cause. Those uneasy about Pakistan’s nuclear activities can readily point, for example, to the proliferation harm done by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Before his arrest a few years ago, Khan ran an illicit nuclear proliferation network that sold uranium centrifuges and even detailed designs for a nuclear bomb, some of which may remain in circulation.

Disappointed nuclear non-proliferation activists, meanwhile, while opposing further nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, note that China’s behavior confirms their earlier fears that the US-India nuclear agreement would establish a bad non-proliferation precedent. It permits New Delhi to engage in nuclear commerce despite India’s refusal to join the NPT, expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile. The Indian deal has thus prompted Pakistan to expand its own fissile material production and oppose a treaty that would cap fissile material stocks at present levels, which would legitimize New Delhi’s stockpile advantage over Islamabad.

But there’s more to the Chasma reactor dispute than the question of equity between India and Pakistan—the deal goes to the heart of concerns over civilian nuclear cooperation and proliferation in Asia. Chinese assertions of the need to maintain a nuclear balance between Pakistan and India reflect the interconnected nature of these three countries’ nuclear programmes. After the Sino-Soviet split of the late 1950s, the Chinese Communists redoubled their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons to counter the USSR’s superiority in nuclear and conventional force. China’s successful development of an atomic bomb in 1964 in turn persuaded Indian leaders to pursue nuclear weapons. After India detonated a non-deliverable fission device in May 1974 at its Pokhran testing site, China increased its sharing of nuclear material and technology with Pakistan, allowing Islamabad to respond quickly when India finally detonated several deliverable nuclear warheads in May 1998.

Indian policymakers cited China’s actions, including its growing nuclear weapons capacity and Beijing’s transfer of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies to Pakistan, as the reasons for their tests (and in the process implied that New Delhi was seeking the capacity to target China with nuclear weapons).

But what’s perhaps the most fundamental point about the dispute with Pakistan is that it could so easily apply to many other Asian countries that might plausibly seek nuclear weapons—after all, its successful acquisition of an expanding nuclear force encourages other governments to believe they too could acquire a nuclear arsenal and overcome the resulting international opprobrium.

That’s not all. Nuclear proliferation anywhere increases the risk that a non-rational actor, whether a leader of a state or a terrorist group, will acquire nuclear weapons. Everything being equal, the risk of nuclear accidents or nuclear weapons diversion to non-state actors rises with the increase in the number of nuclear weapons states. Both these considerations also apply to India, North Korea, Iran and other potential new nuclear weapons states.

In addition, Pakistan’s sometimes acute political instability raises the risk of regime collapse followed by the transfer of Pakistani nuclear weapons to a less moderate government, domestic extremists, or foreign countries or non-state actors such as an international terrorist group or transnational criminal organization. The larger Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the more difficult it becomes for Islamabad to secure all its weapons adequately.

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But it wouldn’t even take regime collapse for extremists to possibly gain control of a Pakistani nuclear weapon. In its 2008 report, the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism describes Pakistan as ‘the geographic crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction’ given the presence of so many Islamist extremists, with suspected sympathizers in the government and armed forces, in a country with a rapidly growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Yet even setting aside the question of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands, nuclear competition between India and Pakistan is especially dangerous. Active (and ongoing) political disputes between the two countries have resulted in three past wars as well as numerous proxy conflicts. Pakistani leaders in particular have concluded that their nuclear arsenal has deterred India from again using its conventional forces to attack Pakistani territory. As a result, Pakistan’s implicit nuclear doctrine presumes the possible first use of nuclear weapons.

The risks of such tensions are compounded by the physical proximity of the two countries, as well as their reliance on ballistic missiles as delivery vehicles, which means that early warning times might be as little as five to ten minutes.

Although it remains unclear whether India or Pakistan have combined its nuclear warheads with their assigned delivery systems, such a precarious stance would increase the risks of both accidental and catalytic war (a nuclear conflict between both governments precipitated by a third party, such as a terrorist group).

Throw China into the mix, with Pakistan at risk of viewing its own nuclear programme as increasingly inadequate as India seeks to achieve mutual deterrence with China, and the picture becomes more complicated. And add in the risk of widespread political disorder in either India or Pakistan, which could see a dangerous political adventurism as political leaders look to rally domestic support, and the peculiar challenges posed by the region become clearer.

The fact is South Asia is particularly prone to a destabilizing arms race. And perhaps nuclear war.