In the new year, one of the toughest challenges for the world would be to contain Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile and its steady progress towards becoming a nuclear blackmailer state.
Pakistan in itself is a dangerous country to meddle with. What makes it even more dangerous and complex is its relationship with China and North Korea, two countries which have had no qualms, like Pakistan, to trade in nuclear technology and materials.
This is not a new threat though; the relationship between Pakistan and North Korea, and North Korea and China, and Pakistan’s own relationship with China makes it a triple challenge for the international community. What makes this threat more worrisome today is the depth and extent of this illicit relationship which has remained unchecked and therefore grown so big that its shadow looms over the entire world.
When Pakistan first began illicitly making nuclear weapons, way back in the early 80s, the US and other western powers knew about it and was keeping a close watch. But no effort was made to prevent Pakistan’s road to become a nuclear rogue state. It was, instead, used as a leverage by the US to use Pakistan as a proxy state against the Soviet Union. Pakistan learnt early enough that the best way to become a nuclear power state was to take the illicit route and Pakistan’s master forger, dubbed as the father of the Islamic bomb, was Dr AQ Khan who enjoyed the blessings of successive rulers of Pakistan, and the leaders in key western capitals.
Not that Pakistan’s nuclear perfidy was not known; it was in fact well known to policy makers in Washington and London. In 1996, Pakistan’s illegal nuclear barter system became public with the publishing of the John Kerry report on the BCCI, a multinational bank which bankrolled all kinds of illegal activities, including nuclear smuggling. Around the same time, there was some feeble attempt to sanction Pakistan for these activities but the US administration scuttled the move and rewarded Pakistan with a new set of fighter planes.
With Pakistan playing a key role in throwing out the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, it was easy for Dr Khan and his cohorts to run a well-oiled network of nuclear smugglers and traders which resulted in Pakistan acquiring nuclear technology and materials, all illegal and paid for either by the CIA slush funds or black money laundered through BCCI. It is also believed that it was China which supplied the first prototype of the nuclear warhead to Pakistan.
Pakistan was not only busy collecting nuclear materials and technology but was also selling some of it to countries like Libya, Iran and North Korea to fund their nuclear weapons programme. For some strange reasons, it was US President George Bush Jr. who put an end to this nuclear trade by exposing Dr Khan and his network but left Pakistan unpunished.
While the US and other western powers believe that in Pakistan they had a willing and pliable “partner“ or a “combat coolie“, it was Pakistan which was having the last laugh; it had the US by its tails and enjoyed both the patronage of the most powerful countries in the world while milking them merrily. All this while, Pakistan was spawning and supporting terrorist groups which they believed would come in handy to extract more influence and money from the western countries, especially the US. It has remained a successful gambit except for a minor blowback—the same terrorist groups now were killing the security forces and civilians alike and some of them had gone `rogue` and `autonomous`.
As the secret alliance between the Pakistani state and terrorist groups unravelled after the 2001 attacks, and finally all haze cleared with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011, Pakistan was fast embracing China, a growing military and economic power, and possible rival to the US. China, isolated in its neighbourhood, was quick to shake hands with Pakistan and then assume the role of its new master by promising weapons and money and protection from its arch enemy, India. Here again, the US faltered, keen as it was in establishing a relationship with Beijing which, not surprisingly, Pakistan helped broker.
While Pakistan was interested in playing the China card to keep India rattled and the US wary, China saw in Pakistan a clear anchor to break free from its geographical bondage. It was more than eager to keep Pakistan to its side and offered nuclear technology and materials, some officially and most of it under the radar, illicitly. The US and other countries knew the new game in town but looked elsewhere for foolhardy reasons, like nation building in Afghanistan.
As the US began relying heavily on Pakistan to keep Afghanistan stable, a perilous and futile task considering Pakistan’s duplicity, the Chinese and Pakistani nuclear trade flourished, some officially but most of it illicitly. China and Pakistan first entered into an official nuclear agreement in 2004, a year after China was admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
China’s lame justification was that it had signed the contract a year before the NSG and therefore was legitimate. The agreement was for the supply of two nuclear reactors. But in the garb of this “legitimate“ sale, China and Pakistan illicit nuclear trade began with great aplomb.
The Chinese argument had no leg to stand on simply because Pakistan was neither an NPT member nor under full-scope IAEA safeguards and therefore was illegible to benefit from any exemptions.
But the exemptions followed with such rapidity that they were no longer exemptions but a blatant illicit trade in nuclear technology and substances. The 2004 agreement was for building Chashma I and II. The Chinese argument of pre-dated contract was not countered strongly by the international community with the expectation that there would be no such exemptions. But six years down the line, the China National Nuclear Cooperation declared that it would export technology for Chashma III and IV with a new blatantly precocious argument that these projects were not fresh proposals but “grandfathered“ as part of the 2004 pact.
In February 2013, China formally signed an agreement for Chashma III and in January 2014, media reports said both the countries were discussing not one but three new reactors. This number jumped up in February 2015 when a Chinese official, during a press conference, confirmed that China was planning to assist Pakistan in building six nuclear reactors. These proposals were in direct contradiction of what the Chinese had agreed to in the consensus document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference which reaffirmed that any new supply agreements for transfer of technology and materials would require the recipients to accept and adhere to “ IAEA full-scope safeguards and internationally legally-binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons“. On all these commitments, Pakistan is a colossal failure.
Since there has been no consternation in the UN or any other international platform over this unholy alliance, and the consequences of two rogue nations, Pakistan and North Korea, becoming unbridled nuclear bullies, the threats have become multiple and graver in the past few years. The possibility of a nuclear jihad, as a result of this alliance and the failure of the international community, is more real today than in the past.