Does it really encourage China to proliferate?

The roots of the real proliferation problem are elsewhere, not in the India-US accord.

Failure to cap India’s nuclear arsenal does not pose a strategic threat to the United States. And even the most determined critics of the India-US nuclear accord accept that India is unlikely to transfer nuclear weapons technology or material to third countries. The detractors must therefore rely on the bogey of global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They have two arguments. First, that making an exception for India weakens America’s abilities in talks with Iran and North Korea. Second, that “once the door has been opened to exceptionalism, it will be all the more difficult to rein in imprudent exports by other (nuclear weapons states)”. China, they contend, will be encouraged to step up its cooperation with Pakistan.

The problem with the argument that the accord with India will set back prospects for a deal to keep Iran from going nuclear, as Robert Kagan puts it, is that ‘it assumes that such prospects exist’. They don’t. Iran’s clandestine and illegal attempt to seek nuclear weapons is neither new nor contingent on how the world treats India. North Korea, the other example, proves why diplomatic deals won’t succeed. Iran and North Korea are serious problems for everyone – including for India – but it unwise and even dangerous to presume that they will be any closer to being solved if the United States does not make an exception for India.

The Chinese proliferation argument is similarly erroneous. In line with its strategy to use proxies to keep its adversaries in check, China has long used ‘managed proliferation’ as an essential part of its security policy. It is not by accident that North Korea, Pakistan and Iran were recipients of Chinese assistance in nuclear and missile technology. From the Chinese perspective, the covert nuclearisation of these states prevents the United States and India from building up strategic dominance in its neighbourhood. It was only after Libya handed Chinese warhead designs to the United States after the ‘A Q Khan network’ was exposed that China felt compelled to scale down cooperation with its allies. Despite the United States having deep knowledge of its proliferation activities (and recent transfers of complete M-11 ballistic missiles and production facilities to Pakistan), the Clinton administration went ahead with civilian nuclear cooperation with China. Chinese nuclear help to Pakistan did not stop even after the this.

China thus doesn’t need any external encouragement to proliferate. In fact, contrary to what critics claim, the India-US deal will bring China’s covert proliferation into sharp focus. Beijing desires to portray itself as a responsible international power as concerned about proliferation as everyone else. If, as critics of the India-US accord claim, it does step up its support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme, then it will put an end to the façade of responsibility that it has erected for itself. Moreover, bringing its clandestine proliferation activities ‘out of the closet’ in this manner will be a net plus for non-proliferation.

But will this cause more countries to seek nuclear weapons? Well, North Korea, Iran and Libya have proved that the NPT is neither the sole determinant nor an insurmountable obstacle in the quest for nuclear weapons. That happened because their ambitions coincided with the interests of countries willing to pass on the nuclear technologies for their own reasons — countries like China and Pakistan. China has scaled back in recent times, though it is too early to tell whether it has abandoned its ‘managed proliferation’ policy. After the A Q Khan episode, Pakistan claims to have ended its clandestine nuclear sales. That’s hard to tell, and for this blog at least, hard to believe.

The upshot is that it is quite possible that countries will attempt to develop nuclear weapons. But it will not be because the United States cut a deal with India. If it does happen, it will be because there are only two stable equilibrium points – when there is universal nuclear disarmament or when there is universal nuclear capability. The longer the world takes to move towards the first, the closer it will move towards the second. That is the real non-proliferation problem.

12 thoughts on “Does it really encourage China to proliferate?”

  1. Dear Nitin,
    Excellent, excellent, excellent ! Thanks for doing the research and unmasking the evil machinations of Beijing.About time we turned the turrets against Pakistan’s Godfather. Beyond the CIA files, the world has yet to know about all the mischief perpetrated by the likes of General Gao of Chinese Military Intelligence. Hope Tom F( his recent NYT column fell flat on its back and his knowledge about global happenings will remain flat if he only listens to NP Ay. Einhorn ) and Markey the Malarkey will take the time to read theacorn.



  2. Nitin , it is precisely for posts such as this that I never miss out on your blog , no matter where I am….Great stuff as usual. You should be writing for the mainstream media.

  3. Good post. One additional rejoinder I’d make to the argument that the Indo-US deal encourages nuclear weapons proliferation is that it involved a nuclear power that was getting no help from the NSG in the first place. In other words, you were dealing with a country that didn’t have much to lose in terms of third-party aid for its nuclear energy program. Whereas nearly every country that people worry about going nuclear in the future, whether terrorist-sponsoring rogue state or stable democracy, is already an NPT signatory. If they decide to obtain nuclear weapons, they risk losing quite a bit. Basically, you’re dealing with apples and oranges.

    This, more than anything else, is probably why someone like El Baradei wasn’t disturbed by the deal, and actually endorsed it on account of the fact that it brought a number of India’s reactors under international supervision.

  4. Minor quibble — Iran and North Korea are not a serious threat for India. North Korea certainly is not. Iran being a regional player could conceivably seek to control Gulf Oil in the future, yet its main rivals are really Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, not India.

  5. Excellent post, I wonder why most analysts, especially proponents of the Indo-US nuke deal, fail to note that most of the 5 nations recognized as nuclear nations under the NPT have already transferred technologies to others

  6. Nitin,

    The longer the world takes to move towards the first, the closer it will move towards the second. That is the real non-proliferation problem.

    Which is why India MUST remind the NPAs(Non-Proliferation Ayotollahs) that “universal disaramament” is a stated goal of the NPT which has been consistently cold-shouldered – and not even mentioned in the stated “non-proliferation” goals.

  7. While the Chinese bid to provide Pakistan with the bomb capabilities are well know, I think you gloss over US complicity in these activities since the ’60s. Kissinger actively supported China providing Pakistan with nuclear material and designs. And so did most US administrations – actively or passively – except may be Carter. Pre-Kargil (and with respect to China, post-Kargil) Clinton was one of worst in that he not only turned a blind eye but actively pardoning Chinese proliferation in order to get nuclear reactors business from China. Bush is the only guy who unequivocally said no to Pakistan – the heart-ace caused to NYT & Economist editorials because Bush said no to Pakistan says something.

    It’s bit mind-boggling the way the so called non-proliferation experts are behaving, especially David Albright. Most of these guys were part of Clinton team (or had nothing to say) when he pardoned the Chinese proliferation and reaffirmed Pakistan’s nuclear status.

    Have you seen the latest Economist? Its editorial has gone nuts. It’s turning its anger on Bush’s failed Iraq war, which it supported, on Bush’s nuclear deal with PM Manmohan.

    I think there is good chance the deal will fail in US Congress especially if the vote comes after (or too close to) November elections when Democrats may take the majority. If it does, it will be huge blow to US-India strategic relationship setting it back decades and to India.

  8. Look like we still have to educate the Americans what a nation of one billion plus can offer. Our markets are our biggest strength and whether its democrats or republicans, they just cant ignore us. Already Boeing is fighting Airbus for market share in India. USA is ‘concerned’ about the nuke deal we just singed with Russia. Now there are reports that China can become our largest trade partner replacing USA. I think the Indian govt has to be pro-active in the American media. We should not only educate them about the opportunity that is India but also educate the Americans what a flawed foreign policy they have. The Americans need to be reminded that every terrorist they wanted had a Paki connection.

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