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Diplomatic duplicity: China and nuclear non-proliferation

By Megan Munoz

China’s application of non-proliferation controls has been the subject of intense and ongoing criticism from the West, yet it has continued to be allowed growing non-proliferation commitments.

China remains a member of multiple non-proliferation groups while continuing to either deny its involvement in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology or pushing the envelope with transactions involving other countries that are not members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, like Pakistan. China has had continuous involvement in the proliferation of technologies and weapons to Pakistan, with the relationship spanning over 4 decades, beginning in the mid-1970s. China recently confirmed that it is involved in at least six nuclear power projects in Pakistan, which underscore the long-standing concerns over the manner in which China goes about making relations with such nations and the lack of transparency that infuses the entire engagement. This relationship is not only a threat to surrounding counties like India, but the very security of the world. China’s continued clandestine cooperation with such nations, all while being a proponent and member of non-proliferation nuclear weapons treaties, undermines the very nature of the international institution and brings into question why the United States does not place more of a critical focus on such behavior.

The affiliation between China and Pakistan goes against numerous guidelines, most notably the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 48-nation body that regulates the export of civilian nuclear technology and prohibits the export of such technologies to countries like Pakistan who have not adopted full-scope international atomic energy agency (IAEA) safeguards. Regardless, China has accelerated nuclear commerce with Pakistan while insisting that its actions are in compliance with NSG guidelines. As such, China not only stands in violation of nuclear non-proliferation, but also puts forth the most convincing evidence of the ineffectiveness of the non-proliferation treaty rules and regulations. If one of the founding signatories is so willing to go against the stipulations with little to no consequence, then how relevant is this institution?

China’s involvement with Pakistan’s nuclear program is aimed to operate effectively outside of mainstream scrutiny, as opposed to the United States and Indian Nuclear Agreement of 2005, which was designed to bring India into mainstream nuclear commerce and global nonproliferation regulations. The United States has spent considerable energy for years consulting with its NSG partners to secure a special waiver for India, which exempted it from constraining conditions of full-scope safeguards, whereas the Sino-Pakistani nuclear engagement is very much a mystery to the international community. Ultimately, China’s involvement was pivotal in Pakistan’s pursuit of the nuclear bomb, with China providing Pakistan 50 kilograms of weapons grade uranium in 1982 and then providing the following year the complete design for a 25 kiloton nuclear bomb. Previous to this, the first official signs of a Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation were in 1977, when the U.S. government noted China’s commitment to Pakistan in providing fuel services and Chinese technicians to the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant. The following year small quantities of enriched reactor grade uranium was produced there.

The question remains: why does the United States choose to not act more against these violations? The U.S. Atomic Energy Act requires the termination of U.S. nuclear exports if the countries involved are determined to be assisting non-nuclear weapons states in the acquiring of nuclear weapon capability. Despite the fact that multiple United States administrations have been aware of Pakistan and China’s clandestine nuclear cooperation, they did not significantly press either China or Pakistan about this cooperation, nor did they threaten to terminate nuclear commerce with China.

Despite the adoption in 2002 of what many considered comprehensive export controls, Chinese entities continue their Pakistani engagement. The U.S. at this point is frustrated by the lack of action by the Chinese administration to clamp down on this proliferation by state and private entities and has begun to attempt to constrain China’s companies by cutting them off from the U.S. economy and international financial markets. In the past few years, the role of state-owned enterprises involved in proliferation has appeared to decline, likely due to the desire to be removed from U.S. sanction lists, yet there remain three important categories of proliferation that continue prominently: nuclear transfers to Pakistan; a list of serial proliferations involving infamous individuals like Karl Lee; and the final category relates to individual transactions or group transactions that are exported to prohibited end uses. China seems unwilling or unable to take any definitive action against these three categories of proliferation, despite releasing a joint statement with France, Russia, The UK, and the US this year when it stated that …”we rededicate ourselves to the NPT and its three mutually reinforcing pillars – disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – we also pledge our support for efforts to ensure the Review Conference builds on the success of the 2010 Action Plan and encourages further cooperation on steps to strengthen all three pillars of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

Even when the United States has attempted to place diplomatic pressure, like in 1990 when the U.S. government refused to certify that Pakistan had not assembled a nuclear device, thus resulting in the suspension of military and economic aid from the United States (in accord with the Pressler Amendment requiring the President to certify every year that Pakistan does not have nuclear weapons), this has done little to impact constant Chinese assistance to Pakistan. Incredulously, at the same time China began its move toward becoming a signatory to the NPT in January 1992, it also announced that it was constructing a nuclear power plant in Pakistan. This kind of diplomatic duplicity has always gone unpunished.

China’s involvement has had serious implications to other nations like India. The waters for India became muddled with the creation of the NPT. The NPT required that only internationally-traded nuclear material and technology be safeguarded. This was something that India was willing to accept, although they declined to disarm and join the NPT as a non-weapon state. However, in 1992, as a means to induce expanded participation in the NPT, the Nuclear Suppliers Group decided as a matter of policy to prohibit all nuclear commerce with nations that had not agreed upon full-scope safeguards. What this meant to India was that it became exiled in the world of nuclear commerce. As a result, India has always sought to intensify its self-reliance and continue to maintain a nuclear deterrence presence, while simultaneously expanding its pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy.

China’s clear and steadfast involvement with the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons to nations like Pakistan has been in stark defiance of the non-proliferation treaties that it is willingly a part of. These actions are not only dangerous to Pakistan’s neighbors, but are a threat to global security overall. Furthermore, China’s unwillingness or inability to stop private and state entities from continued commercial proliferation is even more worrying: though the United States has placed pressure on China to cease these activities, the problem continues, begging for a new strategy to force China’s hand. Otherwise, the idea of nuclear non-proliferation as a serious international institution may end up being simple folly. Duplicity wins out.

Megan Munoz is currently a graduate student at Bellevue University, Bellevue, Nebraska where she is earning a Master of Science degree in the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program. She works as an intelligence analyst for the state of New Jersey, previously served as an intelligence analyst in the United States Air Force for 10 years, and remains a reservist. 

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Modern Diplomacy is an online journal perceived as the valuable tool for the assessment and understanding of world affairs through a combination of qualitative analysis, political commentary, information, interviews and specific thematic features

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