March 16, 2006Foreign AffairsSecurity

Does it really encourage China to proliferate?

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

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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.

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