A Currency of Power

China began its quest for nuclear weapons with help from Soviet Russia in the mid 1950s. On October 16, 1964, it conducted its first nuclear test 

at Lop Nor with a uranium 235 warhead. The first nuclear-tipped missile was fired on October 25, 1966, and the first hydrogen bomb on June 16, 1967. With these developments, China acquired nuclear deterrence capability and broke the superpower monopoly over nuclear weapons. Today, it has approximately 400 nuclear warheads, 12 to 15 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and is known to be a major stakeholder in promoting nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as a currency of power. 

From acquiring the status of a nuclear weapons state to exploiting it as an instrument of state policy was but a short step for a dictatorial communist regime that had not yet grasped the key advantages of integrating itself with the rest of the world. Under the pretext of providing technical information for peaceful purposes, China is known to have provided direct assistance to Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s, including handing over warhead designs and highly enriched uranium for two nuclear bombs. It also provided assistance and transferred dual-use materials that are used in the development of nuclear weapons. 

Subsequently, China is known to have transferred missile technology as well as fully assembled M-9 and M-11 nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Pakistan. And it looked the other way when its protege North Korea transferred No Dong and Taepo Dong ballistic missiles to Pakistan in return for nuclear warhead technology. 

Chinese nuclear technology was passed on by rogue Pakistani scientists to several countries, including Iran and Libya. It has long been suspected that nuclear weapons knowhow may even have been passed on by some elements of the Pakistani establishment to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Pakistan is still unable to explain or justify A Q Khan's proliferation activities to the international community despite the fact that its nuclear and missile development programmes are under army control. The military regime of General Pervez Musharraf had remained in denial for several years about the fact that Khan's proliferation activities had taken place with the explicit knowledge and acquiescence of the state. However, it was too blatant a lie for the world to have believed. 


China advocates lofty principles of non-proliferation while having itself been among the world's proliferators. In a speech, 'Reinforcing Efforts to Prevent Proliferation: China's Perspective', ambassador Sha Zukang said at Wilton Park, UK, on December 17, 2002: "China has always stood for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction and is firmly opposed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. China has steadfastly pursued a policy of not ... encouraging or assisting any other country in developing weapons of mass destruction." Despite grand policy pronouncements, it will be a long time before China becomes a consistently reliable partner in the global battle against nuclear and missile proliferation. 

Despite India's impeccable record, non-proliferation ayatollahs in the US had loudly lamented former president George W Bush's "concessions" to India after the US-India Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement was signed on July 18, 2005, despite the fact most of them had for long maintained an incomprehensible silence about Chinese nuclear proliferation activities. Even at the height of its unabashed nuclear proliferation, China had no difficulty in importing nuclear reactors from France and Russia and exporting such reactors to Pakistan primarily due to the studied silence of the western alliance. 

The US government chose to ignore China's proliferation as Pakistan had become a frontline state in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and it was considered more important to ensure continued Pakistani support for the anti-Soviet jihad. Pakistan is now a nuclear-armed state whose very existence is increasingly being threatened by radical extremists belonging to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Af-Pak region is arguably the world's most unstable region today. The spectre of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands has been giving nightmares to national security planners the world over. 

India bore the brunt of nuclear and missile proliferation in the region over the decades. According to strategic affairs analyst K Subrahmanyam, "The NPT regime was damaged beyond repair when the China-Pakistan combine carried out proliferation and the European countries failed to check the black market linkages between their companies and Pakistan and China...no other country was placed in (the situation India faced of a proliferating (China on the one side and proliferating Pakistan on the other, both in an alliance with each other." 

By transferring nuclear warhead and ballistic missile technology and blessing North Korea's ballistic missile transfers to Pakistan, China has irrevocably altered the geostrategic equation in southern Asia to India's disadvantage. Quite clearly, there was a sinister purpose behind this carefully calibrated move to reduce India to Pakistan's size in geostrategic terms. A more unfriendly act cannot be conceived, and Indian policy planners must always keep this in mind. 

The writer is director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.