August 30, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend G Parthasarthy

Pakistan's Nuclear and Missile Programme: The Multiple Dimensions

  • "It is our right to obtain nuclear technology. And when we acquire this technology, the Islamic World shall possess it with us." Thus spoke General Zia ul Haq in 1986, while describing the nuclear ambitions of his country. The pan-Islamic dimensions of Pakistan's policies were further clarified when General Zia told American scholar Selig Harrison in 1988: "We have earned the right to have a very friendly regime in Afghanistan. We took risks as a frontline State and won't permit it to be like before, with Indian and Soviet influence there and a claim on our territory. It will be a real Islamic State, part of a pan Islamic revival, that will one day win over the Muslims of the Soviet Union."

    Pakistan's support for the Taleban, the Islamic dimensions of its nuclear policies and its support for extremist Islamic elements in Central Asia should therefore be seen as an integral part of its ambition to be a "frontline state" in promoting "militant Islam" across the globe.

  • There is a mistaken belief that Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme was a response to the Pokhran nuclear test of 1974. The decision to develop a nuclear weapons capability and acquire nuclear weapons was taken by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in January 1972. Bhutto felt that after the Bangladesh disaster, Pakistan would need these weapons to act as an "equaliser" to deal with India's conventional superiority and strategic depth.

    This was confirmed by no less than Pakistan's able and articulate Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar just before the military takeover last October. Sattar and two other eminent Pakistanis then asserted that the decision taken in 1972 was primarily to "deter another Indian onslaught aimed at the territorial integrity of residual Pakistan."

    One wishes that General Musharraf would take a leaf from the intellectual honesty of his foreign minister and stop shedding tears about why India's Pokhran test in 1974 forced Pakistan to go nuclear. Those who constantly assert in India that our tests in 1998 forced Pakistan to go nuclear would be well advised to remember that Pakistan's nuclear policies have their own rationale and dynamics. These flow from their perceptions on the need for a strategic "equaliser" to maintain "parity" with India and their belief that they do have a leading role to play in the "Islamic Ummah."

  • The most important strategic dimension of Pakistan's nuclear policies is the longstanding and internationally unprecedented ties that have developed with China on issues of nuclear and missile cooperation. There is now independently corroborated information that while a group of Chinese nuclear scientists visited Pakistan in October 1974, shortly after Pokhran I, it was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who secured China's agreement to provide all necessary assistance for Pakistan to acquire and develop nuclear weapons during his visit to China in April 1976.

    By the early 1980s China provided Pakistan with the design of a 25 kiloton nuclear weapon and also sufficient highly enriched uranium to build around four to five bombs. In their paper in October last year, Sattar and his associates Aga Shahi and Zulfiqar Ali Khan have claimed that in 1984, Pakistan had warned India about the use of nuclear weapons if India attacked the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant. Since a number of independent assessments confirm that Pakistan's own enrichment progamme had not advanced sufficiently to produce adequate enriched uranium for a bomb in 1984, it is only logical to conclude that Pakistan was in fact threatening to use Chinese designed nuclear weapons made from highly enriched uranium supplied by China. It needs to be remembered that the then foreign minister of Pakistan, Sahibzada Yakub Khan, was present at China's Lop Nor test site when a 25 kiloton device was tested in May 1983.

  • There has been no let up in China's support to Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme despite what is undoubtedly an improvement in the climate of our relations with China. While there has been substantial publicity given to the supply of 5,000 "ring magnets" for Pakistan's uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta by China, a far more ominous development has been China's decision to provide Pakistan with a 40 MW heavy water reactor at Khushab. This reactor will provide the plutonium and tritium for advanced compact warheads.

    There is also good reason to believe that China looks the other way as heavy water supplied by it is diverted to this unsafeguarded reactor. Interestingly, while the Reagan administration chose to turn a blind eye to China's assistance to Pakistan's nuclear programme in the 1980s, the Clinton administration has waffled, obfuscated and covered up facts on this subject during its nearly eight years in office. It remains to be seen how a Bush or Gore administration will now address this issue.

  • Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988 certainly laid the basis for unfreezing relations with our northern neighbour. Subsequent high level visits and exchanges have enhanced confidence and cooperation and have reduced the possibilities of tensions along the borders.

    China and India do share many common interests in forums like the WTO and on issues pertaining to the environment and economic development. But one cannot ignore the fact that almost coinciding with Rajiv Gandhi's visit, China decided to supply Pakistan with M-11 missiles to match the development of the "Prithvi" by India. It is estimated that China shipped around 30 M-11 missiles to the Sargodha Air Base near Lahore under the agreement concluded in 1988.

  • While the Pakistan Air Force can use its Chinese supplied A-5, French Mirage and American supplied F-16 aircraft to deliver nuclear weapons, China and Pakistan seem to have decided in the mid-1990s that Pakistan should possess medium range missiles if it is to reliably and accurately target Indian population centres in Northern India -- a task the M-11 with a limited range cannot accomplish. It is evidently with this aim that China is supplying M-9 missiles with a range of 800 km to Pakistan. Named "Shaheen I," these proven missile systems have been "flight tested" by Pakistan, with flight paths over crowded Pakistani population centres.

    Further, following the flight-testing of the "Agni" missile, China has supplied Pakistan with the 2,000 km range M-18 missile called "Shaheen II" by Pakistan. China is collaborating in these efforts with the rising star in the Pakistan nuclear establishment, Dr Samar Mubarak Mand, who is a quiet and low key professional like his Indian counterparts. Dr Mand is now overshadowing the brash and publicity addicted Dr A Q Khan.

    It is acknowledged in Pakistan that with the setting up of the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant based on designs stolen by him now completed, Dr A Q Khan has outlived his utility. Further, allegations of financial irregularities in the A Q Khan laboratories cannot be entirely overlooked by a military regime claiming commitment to the principle of "accountability".

  • It is now obvious that even as it seeks to lessen prospects for tensions in bilateral relations with us, China is determined to adopt a policy of strategic containment of India by its nuclear and missile collaboration with Pakistan and its growing influence in Myanmar to our East. It remains to be seen how we will meet this challenge.

    We obviously need to reduce tensions and enhance cooperation and confidence in our relations with China. But there is also a need to look at what needs to be done to make it clear to China that pursuit of its current policies will not be without its own diplomatic and strategic costs.

    G Parthasarathy

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