China, Pakistan, and the Bomb:The Declassified File on U.S. Policy, 1977-1997
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 114
March 5, 2004: William Burr, editor
Washington D.C., 5 March 2004 - The recent turnaround in Libya's nuclear policies and the many disclosures of Pakistan's role as a super-proliferator of nuclear weapons technology produced another extraordinary revelation: the discovery by U.S. and British intelligence of Chinese language material among the nuclear weapons design documents that Pakistan had supplied the Libyans. (Note 1) The exact subject matter of the documents remains secret, but the discovery was no surprise to students of nuclear proliferation or to China and Pakistan watchers. China's nuclear relationship with Pakistan was a matter of great concern to U.S. government officials over the course of four presidential administrations. Since the early 1980s, at least, allegations abounded that the Chinese government provided the Pakistanis with nuclear weapons technology, including design information. (Note 2) This assistance may have continued through the mid-1990s, or even later, though much remains conjectural.
Until the revelations from the Libyan files, no evidence had surfaced that conclusively linked China with Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. But the revelation on the Chinese documents is only one piece of the puzzle; questions remain about the nature of the China-Pakistan nuclear relationship--its origins and its extent--that may not be settled for many years. How and why this nuclear relationship emerged can only be a matter of speculation. Certainly, for many years, Beijing's official position was that it would not help other countries acquire nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, during the years after China's first nuclear test in October 1964, its nuclear weapons policy was complex and ambivalent. On the one hand, even as it developed its small nuclear arsenal, Beijing supported a complete ban of nuclear weapons and their ultimate elimination. On the other hand, Beijing railed against the superpower's nuclear monopoly, declaring that non-nuclear states had the right to develop nuclear weapons on their own, just as it had. Moreover, after the signing of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (1968), China treated it as another unequal treaty, allowing the great powers to keep their arsenals while prohibiting sovereign nations from taking self-defense measures. (Note 3)
China's professed opposition to sharing nuclear weapons technology with non-nuclear states may have led to compromise of principle when security and economic interests were at stake. Well before the question of nuclear sharing emerged, China and Pakistan, each having an adversarial relationship with India, had developed a close understanding involving significant military cooperation. When the U.S. cut off sales of weapons to both India and Pakistan because of their 1965 border conflict, China became Pakistan's main supplier of weapons. The close relationship with China became one of the pillars of Pakistani foreign policy. When India held its first nuclear test in 1974, and Pakistan made decisions to acquire its own capability to build nuclear weapons, it may have seemed a matter of course for elements in the Chinese military, which had a powerful voice in Beijing's nuclear establishment, eventually to decide to lend Pakistan a hand. (Note 4)
The interests that propelled Beijing to assist Pakistan's nuclear program became competitive, during the 1980s and 1990s, with other sets of interests pushing for a stronger Chinese role in global nuclear nonproliferation efforts. While reports of Beijing's transfer of nuclear weapons designs and sensitive technologies circulated, the two governments signed a nuclear cooperation agreement and conducted negotiations over the sale of Chinese nuclear reactors. At the same time, Beijing became a full member of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, joining the International Atomic Energy Authority in 1984 and signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1992 and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1995. Moreover, China began to work closely with Washington and other powers in trying to curb the North Korean nuclear program and in restricting trade in sensitive nuclear technology. As China's market economy developed greater complexity, central authorities could not always control events, which is what may happened when a Chinese firm sold ring magnets used for the production of highly enriched uranium to Pakistan in 1995. (Note 5)
Exactly what the United States government knew (or believed it knew) about Chinese nuclear sharing with Pakistan and when it knew it, remains highly secret. So far no intelligence reports on the issues have been declassified, although during the Clinton years Washington Times correspondent Bill Gertz published highly damaging communications intercepts on Chinese-Pakistan nuclear transactions in 1996. (Note 6) In light of the sensitivities involved--U.S. relations with two highly important partners, Pakistan and China--the relevant details may not be declassified for many years. Moreover, the presidential records that would shed light on how consecutive administrations tried to reconcile the larger goal of engagement with Beijing with specific concerns about nuclear proliferation issues remain secret. Within the limits imposed by the secrecy system, this briefing book sheds light on how U.S. government officials looked at the China-Pakistan nuclear relationship, their persistent efforts to discourage it, the repeated denials by Chinese diplomats, and the evolution of China's nuclear nonproliferation policy. Among the disclosures are:
1. U.S. unease over secret China-Pakistan security and military cooperation during the late 1960s
2. Chinese assistance to Pakistani nuclear-weapons related projects in 1977
3. The refusal by Chinese diplomats in 1982 to give an "unequivocal answer" to queries about nuclear weapons aid to Pakistan
4. The conclusion reached by State Department analysts in 1983 that China was assisting with the production of fissile materials and possibly with the design of weapons
5. The George H. W. Bush administration's concern in 1989 over "reports of Chinese assistance to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program"
6. Denials by Chinese diplomats that same year of reports of Chinese nuclear aid to Pakistan
7. U.S. pressure on China in 1992 to impose full-scope safeguards on the sale of a nuclear reactor to Pakistan because of proliferation concerns
8. More disquiet (late 1992) over China's "continuing activities with Pakistan's nuclear weapons programs"
9. the Clinton administration's 1997 certification of improvements in Beijing's nuclear proliferation policies.
The revelations about the China-Pakistan nuclear connection coincided with Beijing's recent application to join the 30 member Nuclear Suppliers Group that tries to regulate international trade in nuclear materials and technologies in order to check weapons proliferation. (Note 7) It is possible that tensions between non-proliferation, foreign policy, and commercial goals will continue to complicate Beijing's policies as it has that of other nuclear states. Nevertheless, Beijing's decision to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group suggests that it is moving much closer toward full participation in the global nonproliferation regime and away from the narrowly nationalistic approach that characterized its nuclear relationship with Pakistan. To the extent that Chinese government agencies actually transmitted nuclear weapons design information to Pakistan, one can only hope that the spin-off from Pakistan never leaked into private hands.
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