South Asia’s Fragile Nuclear Balance

The paradigm shaping foreign policy in Washington DC today reads that the futures of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inherently intertwined. The war in the one cannot be resolved as long as insurgents are able to find safe haven in the other while regional stability demands peace across borders. Yet in Pakistan the Americans have to tread all the more carefully because here it runs the risk of intruding on China’s interests.

China has long been a friend of Pakistan’s. Its president visits Beijing regularly, several times a year indeed and although the Chinese preferred to work with his predecessor, the more authoritarian General Pervez Musharraf, they gladly continue trade relations and an exchange of nuclear technology up to this very day. China is already building two nuclear reactors in Pakistan and would like to sell the country two more.

The West doesn’t much like that. As Richard Weitz points out at The Diplomat, Pakistan never signed the nonproliferation treaty while its lack of internal stability raises the specter of nuclear terrorism. The United States, the United Kingdom and India have all protested the sale but their concerns fail to move China, “with Chinese officials perhaps calculating that Washington and others ultimately won’t try to expel China from the [Nuclear Suppliers Group] or retaliate in other ways if the sale occurs because they need Beijing’s assistance on other nuclear nonproliferation issues, including Iran and North Korea.”

What’s more though, the United States set a precedent in 2008 when it forced through an exemption for India from the NSG’s own rules — a wise move from the American perspective because to them, India matters. As far as China is concerned however, “providing comparable nuclear assistance to Pakistan simply helps maintain the nuclear balance in South Asia,” according to Weitz.

There is a good argument to be made for exempting India from the NSG guidelines but not Pakistan. Although not a signatory to the nonproliferation treaty, it has consistently supported the principles underlying it. New Delhi imposes a strict and comprehensive nuclear export control system and has agreed to international safeguards for any future civilian nuclear reactors. Pakistan on the other hand may well have been complicit in the spread of nuclear secrets and weapon designs in the 1990s.

This hasn’t deterred China from sharing technology because a nuclear Pakistan serves it own complicated relationship with India. It was China’s first successful detonation of an atomic weapon in 1964 that compelled New Delhi to seek a similar capacity. After India managed to acquire nuclear weapons, Beijing set out to make Pakistan a nuclear power. With China’s help, Islamabad could respond quickly when India finally detonated several deliverable nuclear warheads in 1998.

With American forces stationed across the border in Afghanistan and the situation in Pakistan affecting their security and ultimately, the success of their mission, the United States risk becoming party to a fragile nuclear balance at best — and a nuclear arms involving China in the worst, albeit unlikely, scenario.

The Obama Administration has been grappling with how to balance China’s and India’s roles in Afghanistan against its own interests. Where his predecessor made New Delhi the priority, Barack Obama has understandably been more ambiguous about his commitment; something that certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed with India’s leadership. The president has tried to convince the Chinese that they should pressure Islamabad into crushing the Taliban insurgency along its mountainous Afghan frontier but he can hardly continue to make that case were his own administration to side with India unequivocally.

Both China and the United States stand to gain from a stable Pakistan that can actively support the fight against violent extremism in South Asia. Yet the historic mistrust between China and India as well as the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan demands of both great powers that they take care to avoid being dragged into a cold war that could undermine not just the nuclear balance of power in the region but nonproliferation efforts around the world.