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Pakistan's All Weather Ally

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
September 18, 2008


As the controversial nuclear deal between India and the United States moves toward a final review in the U.S. Congress, Pakistan appears to be pushing for a similar deal (IANS) with China. The Bush administration won approval for the India arrangement before the Nuclear Suppliers Group earlier this month, and both Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have been actively lobbying for it at home and abroad. But Washington has ruled out any possibility (PTI) of cutting a similar deal with Pakistan. Many now expect China to step into the void.

Critics of the Indian nuclear deal worry that it may spark a nuclear arms race in South Asia. Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center says international proliferation experts already view past proliferation problems in Pakistan with concern. The country formed the center of the most notorious of all proliferation rings, led by the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, A.Q. Khan. Some experts also express concerns about the China's proliferation record, though it's a signatory to the NPT and the Chinese government says it opposes proliferation. Patricia McNerney, the State Department's top official on nonproliferaton policy told Congress in May that "a number of Chinese entities continue to supply items and technologies useful in weapons of mass destruction" to regimes of concern. Chinese state-owned corporations have been accused of proliferating technology to Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Libya in the past.

Now closer relations between the United States and India, and particularly the potential nuclear deal, may force Islamabad to seek a counterbalance in Beijing. Souring relations between Washington and Islamabad over unilateral U.S. military action inside Pakistan's tribal areas seems to have reaffirmed Pakistan's longheld belief that the United States is an unreliable ally. As this interactive timeline explains, Pakistan and China grew closer in the 1960s as Washington and Islamabad began to part ways over handling regional issues. In particular, Pakistan felt betrayed after the United States cut off aid during its war with India in 1965. Pakistanis also felt spurned in the early 1990s, after Washington ceased using the country as a conduit for arming the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahadeen.

Since then, China has been the cornerstone of Pakistan's foreign policy "because it was the only country that fully identified with its anti-India goals" (YaleGlobal), writes Willem van Kemenade, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. As this Backgrounder details, Pakistan relies on China for major military and economic assistance, nuclear and ballistic missile technology, aircraft, and small arms. According to Thomas C. Reed, a former U.S. Air Force secretary, China probably helped Pakistan test a nuclear weapon (Physics Today) inside China in May 1990. Reed adds that this weapon was most likely based on a Chinese design.

China, however, has its own concerns about increasing Islamic extremism inside Pakistan, particularly given evidence that Uighur separatists from the Xinjiang province in western China seek sanctuary and training in Pakistan's tribal areas. Recent kidnappings of Chinese citizens (Reuters) by Pakistani militants have added to tensions between the allies. Pakistan's questionable record on nonproliferation may also hinder such a pact. Krepon says "there will still be great reluctance on the part of nuclear suppliers to treat Pakistan on the same footing as India." In a recent press conference in New Delhi, U.S. Ambassador to India David C. Mulford ruled out a possible nuclear deal between China and Pakistan.

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