President Obama and his “United Brain Trust” are landing in China for the first time, meaning Dr. AQ Khan’s detailed letters of Pakistan’s nuclear program didn’t go public by chance. With North Korean nuclear proliferation set to be a main course on his tour, Obama's going to need more Ivy grads to solve this brain buster.
"It should be clear where that path leads," Obama from Suntory Hall in Japan, his first stop. “We will continue to send a clear message through our actions, and not just our words: North Korea's refusal to meet its international obligations will lead only to less security, not more."
Calling himself “America’s first Pacific president,” Obama said he won’t “be cowed” by North Korea, but what about China? In letters sent first to his wife, then to former Financial Times journalist Simon Henderson, and later obtained by the Washington Post, Khan vividly recollects Pakistani-Chinese nuclear relations from beginning to end.
1976. Fours years after India tests its first nuclear device, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto seeks an audience with Mao Zedong where the two agree to exchange nuclear material. Months later at Mao’s funeral, Pakistani and Chinese generals agree to honor their mutual pact and open the channels.
“Chinese experts started coming regularly to learn the whole technology,” Khan recounts, while Pakistani experts helped “put up a centrifuge plant” in Hanzhong, central China. After passing on European-designed centrifuges to progress China’s uranium-enrichment program, China returned 15 tons of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a key component for uranium enrichment.
Pakistan manufactured its first bomb by 1982 under the cover of Afghanistan.
But it needed more. General.Zia-ul Haq, having assumed power after executing Bhutto, became paranoid of Israeli and Indian conspiracies to preemptively strike Pakistan's nuclear sites. A general was dispatched to Beijing and he returned to Islamabad with 10 single-kilogram ingots of highly enriched uranium (HEU).
"The Chinese gave us drawings of the nuclear weapon, gave us kg. 50 enriched uranium," Khan wrote.
A gradual surplus of material allowed Pakistan's nuclear scientists to store China's uranium until 1985, and Khan offered to return the uranium to China with Zia’s approval. After a few days, they responded "that the HEU loaned earlier was now to be considered as a gift... in gratitude” for Pakistan’s help.
“In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another,” Obama said in present day Japan. "So the United States does not seek to contain China."
Is he sure?
Raising the nuclear transfer during his talks is unrealistic; America needs Chinese cooperation on too many issues. Besides, Obama can't bring up human rights, Internet, Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Pakistani uranium all at once. Ambush Beijing and pay the price. It’s smile time.
Chinese Ambassador Zhang Wenjin called the dispute “manageable.” Similarly, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley responded, "The United States has worked diligently and made progress with China over the past 25 years. As to what was or wasn't done during the Reagan administration, I can't say."
But Khan’s story is just as relevant today. America still needs Pakistan too much to say anything.
Henderson agreed to The Post's request in the first place because he believes an accurate understanding of Pakistan's nuclear history is relevant for today's U.S. policy-making. For instance, Pakistan is extremely proud of being the only nuclear Islamic state, but also a poor power. India, on the other side, is seething at Pakistani-Chinese cooperation both then and now.
The Indian Times reported, “Khan sees this act of stealing, begging and borrowing to make the bomb as a supreme accomplishment by Pakistan. ‘The speed of our work and our achievements surprised our worst enemies and adversaries and the West stood helplessly by to see a Third World nation, unable even to produce bicycle chains or sewing needles, mastering the most advanced nuclear technology in the shortest possible span of time,’ he boasts in an 11-page narrative.”
Allowing Pakistan and China to pursue their nuclear ambitions together is a zero-sum game because India and America are losing power, comparatively speaking. China is the next big thing in Pakistan and both countries want to keep it that way. China’s friendship with Pakistan counters India, while China is a more viable ally to Pakistan than America.
In a display of tensions, Pakistan Foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit called the story, “yet another attempt to divert attention from the overt and covert support being extended by some states to the Indian nuclear program since its inception and intensified more recently in stark contradiction to their self-avowed commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Neither India nor Pakistan has signed the NPT treaty though, President Obama’s newest obstacle.
Technically no one has a right to criticize Pakistan or China, and they shouldn’t need to deny their relationship. Pakistan has never signed the NPT treaty and China signed in 1992, so no law was broken during the transfer. And nuclear alliances have multiple precedents; France and Israel, Canada and India, America and Britain.
The US–UK Mutual Defense Agreement, dealing exclusively with nuclear transfers, was signed in 1958, ten years before the NPT treaty was created in 1968. However, America and Britain renewed their pact in 2004 until 2014. To condemn a strategic alliance between Pakistan and China would be Western hypocrisy at the highest level.
Except Obama is a champion of non-proliferation, it’s his personal issue. He received his Nobel Prize in large part for his advocacy. How can he look the other way? The letter of the law won’t eliminate nuclear weapons, he needs the spirit. Disarmament will be impossible if the world's greatest powers align themselves in nuclear blocs.
What makes a North Korean-Myanmar connection so wrong? The alleged illegality of a transfer is based on absolute nonproliferation among every state on earth. Otherwise the judgment is moral, subjective, elitist - and that system will ultimately fail.
There is no realistic answer to this dilemma for Obama, who has no choice except to look the other way while in China. More than a few Harvard brains are about to be busted.
But eventually he must confront the full implications of nonproliferation if he wants his dream to come true.