This article appeared in The Statesman under the title Pakistan’s China pavilion, After the USA’s ‘Package Of Tangible Inducements’
WHY does Islamabad, Washington’s best ally, so often give sleepless nights to US officials? One can argue that it is a question of reciprocity.
The latest one: the Americans made fools of the Pakistani Army and its Intelligence agencies by dropping silently into the centre of one of their most secured cantonments to kill Osama bin Laden. It has obviously upset Pakistan!
In this case, Islamabad has found the way to take revenge: they have invited another ‘friend’ to the Game, the Chinese. A report from Pakistan suggests that Beijing is interested in studying the remains of the US top-secret Stealth helicopter abandoned during the Abbottabad raid. A Pakistani official even admitted, “We might let them [the Chinese] take a look.”
It conveys the message: “The Chinese are waiting at our door, don’t mess with us, our ‘all-weather friend’ can replace you”.
An article in the Chinese-language Shanghai Evening Post explains that although the US wants the pieces of the chopper back, “Pakistan may invite China to participate in the study. Based on the pictures, aeronautics and military experts believe it is a modified Stealth helicopter.”
The PLA intelligence has probably already received a few pieces of the chopper as a ‘souvenir’ (or a ‘reward’).
After all, Pakistan can’t refuse this to a friend. On 11 May, when Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani opened Pakistan’s second Chinese-made nuclear reactor, he praised the ‘unwavering’ support from its ally at a time when the rest of the world pounced on Pakistan for having hosted the dreaded Saudi terrorist for so long in a comfortable safe house.
Gilani hammered the nail in: “It is yet another illustrious example of Pakistan-China cooperation in the field of nuclear science and technology. The high level of friendship that the two countries enjoy continues to be a source of strength for Pakistan,” the Prime Minster said. This may not help to smoothen out the already strained relations with Washington.
The new 330 MW reactor, built in Chashma (Punjab) should be followed by two other units, also made-in-China, at the same plant.
China’s nuclear ties with Pakistan have always been a source of tension for Washington. First, Pakistan has a very poor track record as far as proliferation is concerned; one remembers the saga of Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist; and there is always a risk of nuclear weapons falling in the wrong hands.
Though the government in Islamabad maintains that nuclear weapons are safe in Pakistan and that it is impossible for militants or terrorists to get hold of them, Washington does not often trust Islamabad’s utterances (as in the case of the bin Laden operations).
It is not the first time that Washington is nervous. In 2009, soon after President Obama announced that Pakistan’s nuclear materials “will remain out of militant hands”, the US ambassador in Islamabad sent a secret message to Washington. Anne W Patterson was deeply worried. Her concern was a stockpile of highly enriched uranium kept near an aging research nuclear reactor in Pakistan. There was enough material to produce a nuclear bomb.
In her cable, sent on 27 May 2009, Ms Patterson reported that the Pakistani government was dragging its feet on an agreement reached two years earlier wherein Islamabad had agreed that the United States would remove the material. The US Ambassador had been told by a Pakistani official: “If the local media got word of the fuel removal, they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.
The WikiLeaks cable does not tell us the end of the story. Hopefully the fuel has been removed since then. It, however, remains a fact that the Pakistani nuclear programme recurrently gives ‘sleepless’ nights to successive US Presidents.
Perhaps even more interesting than the WikiLeaks cables is a series of US documents published by the National Security Archives (NSA) of George Washington University on how Pakistan acquired the bomb in the 1970’s.
This period witnessed the military coup by General Zia-ul-Haq who imposed martial law on 5 July 1977. The documents show that though the Carter Administration was deeply upset with the Zia regime, the arrival of the Soviets in Afghanistan at the end of the seventies, made the US officials ‘forget’ that Pakistan had become nuclear. Later, it was too late to stop the nuclear train.
Already in the Seventies, the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme was a source of anxiety for US officials; especially when they discovered AQ Khan’s network. The Carter Administration would have been even more worried if they had known that Khan and his team were spreading nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea with the help of China, but that is another story.
The entire nuclear process had started after Pakistan’s defeat during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. President Bhutto realised that Pakistan would never be able to defeat India in a conventional war. He decided to secretly go in for nuclear weapons. In 1973, Pakistan began negotiations to buy a nuclear reprocessing facility (used for producing plutonium) from a French firm.
In August 1974, US intelligence agencies estimated that Pakistan would not have nuclear weapons before 1980, even with ‘extensive foreign assistance’. But a year later, the CIA predicted that Pakistan could produce a plutonium-fuelled weapon as early as 1978, as long as it had access to a reprocessing source. They, therefore, thought that it was enough to stop the transfer of reprocessing plant to end the process. Unfortunately, the US intelligence agencies made some wrong assumptions.
The US documents also confirm that Zia’s main objective was the consolidation of the nuclear programme initiated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who had bragged “we are ready to eat grass” to possess the coveted weapon.
Thanks to Abdul Qadeer Khan, who managed to steal the blueprints for a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility, the Pakistani dream became a reality right under the eyes of the Americans who “wanted to maintain good relations with that country, a moderate state in an unstable region”.
Reading these historical documents, one realizes that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his colleagues believed that ‘a package of tangible inducements’ would dissuade Pakistan from taking drastic steps. With China remaining Pakistan’s main support to acquire the bomb, even ‘tangible inducements’ were not enough. Though the Carter Administration worked hard on a non-proliferation policy, Pakistan still managed to build its nuclear arsenal. It certainly brought deep frustration to Carter and his team.
Another US document admits that during the 1980s, “the US was criticized for providing massive levels of aid to Pakistan, its military ally, despite laws barring assistance to any country that imported certain technology related to nuclear weapons. President Ronald Reagan waived the legislation, arguing that cutting off aid would harm US national interests”.
One moral of the story is that when a State is desperate to get nuclear technology, it is difficult to stop it, with either sticks or carrots. More than the growing rift between Pakistan and the US, what worries the US officials in Washington is the growing Chinese influence in Islamabad. Whenever there is a problem between the two ‘allies’, Beijing is not far away and always ready to ‘help’.
A piece of a chopper’s tail is a small reward for such support.