American Approach to Sino-Pakistan Nuclear and Missile Cooperation

-Chintamani Mahapatra, Research Fellow, IDSA


During the first US-China Summit in the last eight years, in October 1997, one of the most important deals struck between President Bill Clinton and visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin was on nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As part of the agreement, China reportedly agreed to enact and implement new export controls over nuclear material, equipment and technology and also agreed to join the Zangger Committee, an international regime that coordinates efforts by the nuclear countries to control exports in the same material and equipment. More significantly from Indian perspectives, the Chinese President reportedly gave assurances to the US Administration that China would not assist unsafeguarded nuclear programmes and facilities in countries such as Pakistan and Iran. Bill Clinton on his part agreed to certify to the US Congress that China was no longer promoting proliferation. This in turn would enable American companies to export nuclear power technology to China.1

In fact, it was the inability of the US Presidents to give a clear certificate to China since the days of the Reagan Presidency which became the main bottleneck in implementation of the 1985 nuclear cooperation agreement signed between the US and China. This agreement, which authorises sale of nuclear reactors, reactor components and low-enriched uranium fuel, was negotiated during 1981-1984, and constituted the first such agreement between the US and a Communist country and between the US and another nuclear weapon state.2 This agreement was negotiated and concluded in the midst of the Afghanistan crisis and the determination of the Reagan Administration to bleed the Soviets white in Afghanistan. The enactment of the Pressler Amendment in 1985 is more than just a coincidence.

Interestingly, the 1985 nuclear cooperation agreement with China was concluded in the midst of American concern over China's assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear weapons programmes of other countries, including Pakistan. The argument of the Reagan Administration was that it would encourage China to promote its non-proliferation efforts. The billions of dollars of bilateral assistance programme to Pakistan was similarly based on the logic that it would encourage Pakistan to abandon the nuclear path. While Congressional opposition and China's record in promoting proliferation made it difficult for the implementation of the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, the Reagan and Bush Administrations did not hesitate to certify Pakistan's nuclear virginity for five years. As a result, China continued to assist Pakistan's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes and Pakistan could acquire nuclear weapon capability. The noble goals of US legislations and bilateral assistance programmes were not achieved.

Today the Clinton Administration has not only succeeded in its efforts to renew contact with Pakistan through the enactment of the Brown Amendment but also managed to implement the 1985 nuclear cooperation agreement with China. Both these efforts were made in the context of the changed circumstances of the post-Cold War era. The Brown Amendment has enabled Washington to re-establish ties with Pakistan and redefine a role for that country in the US strategic calculus. And the economic logic appears to have prompted the Clinton Administration to seek implementation of the nuclear cooperation agreement with China. It would assist a beleaguered nuclear market in the US a great deal by enabling the American companies to tap the billions of dollars worth of Chinese market in the field.3 Has the Clinton Administration disregarded proliferation concerns due to financial gains? A brief backgrounder to the events leading to the October Sino-American Summit and the nuclear deal between the two countries may be important in this context.

In the months preceding Jiang Zemin's visit to the US, several reports appeared indicating China's activities which would ideally make it difficult for Clinton to give a clean chit to China in his report to Congress. It was reported in the US media in April 1997 that, according to an ongoing federal investigation in the US, China had been diverting US machine tools to a military production facility. Records from a Catic (Chinese state-owned company) subsidiary in Southern California demonstrated that the Nanchang Aircraft Company had been the intended destination all along.4 In the same month, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Einhorn, said in a testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee that China had not stopped its assistance to Pakistan's nuclear weapon programme and that "concerns about transfers of missile-related components, technology and production technology persist, raising serious questions about the nature of China's commitment to abide by the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) guidelines." Another State Department official commented in the same month that China had done little to improve export controls and without improvements President Bill Clinton could not authorise implementation of the 1985 nuclear cooperation agreement.

In June 1997, it was reported that China had purchased 47 supercomputers from the US since the easing of export controls in 1995. As this figure was mentioned by William Reinsch, Under-Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration, in his testimony, Senator Thad Cochran sought to introduce legislation to restrict sales of computers even below the 2000 MTOPS performance level if they could be upgraded. He said: "We think many of the supercomputers sold to China are being integrated into the military weapons development area in a way that is going to make their weapons more sophisticated and lethal, and this could jeopardise our own national security interests." Reinsch criticised the proposed legislation on the ground that it "is an off-the-shelf, ubiquitous technology using off-the-shelf precursors. Since this technology is out of the box, you can't control it." In the same month, an unclassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report, which covered proliferation events from July to December 1996, said: "During the last half of 1996, China was the most significant supplier of WMD-related goods and technology to foreign countries. The Chinese provided a tremendous variety of assistance to both Iran's and Pakistan's ballistic missiles programmes. China also was the primary source of nuclear-related equipment and technology to Pakistan..."5

It was once again in the same month that Press reports appeared, citing the CIA sources, about China's assistance in construction of an M-11 missile plant in Pakistan. The CIA believed, according to the reports, that the plant had been visited by a dozen engineers from the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation, which was responsible for the marketing of the Chinese missiles abroad. There were allegations in the US that President Clinton tended to ignore the CIA evidence to preserve US-China trade relations. The White House apparently assured that the information would not be "overlooked" and that the Administration would "make appropriate determinations and take appropriate action."6

In July, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright raised the issue with Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, in Hong Kong that China had not only diverted a US-origin supercomputer to a defence and scientific research institute in Changsha of the Hunan province but also had earlier refused an American request to check the location of the computer, which was intended for a scientific institute in Beijing. A couple of months later, President Clinton was prepared to accept the Chinese assurances to strengthen their export control measures and giving up their assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities in Pakistan and Iran. How reliable are the Chinese assurances? How would the present and future Administrations in the US react if the Chinese do not keep their promises? Once again, the ring magnet and M-11 episodes could throw some light.

Ring Magnets

Days after President Bill Clinton signed the Brown Amendment, the US media reported, citing US intelligence sources, that China had supplied 5,000 ring magnets to Pakistan. It was on February 4, 1996, that reports appeared that China sold the ring magnets to the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratory in Kahuta in 1995. The American intelligence reportedly believed that the magnets would be used in special suspension bearings at the top of a spinning chamber in the centrifuges. The ring magnets could enable, according to the Nucleonic News, Pakistan to double its capacity to enrich uranium for weapon purposes.7 Was it not a deliberate policy of the US Administration to make the intelligence leak about the Sino-Pakistan ring magnets deal only after the passage of the Brown Amendment and not earlier when the Bill was under discussion in the US Congress? Sino-Pakistan cooperation in the field of nuclear technology had been going on for quite some time. In fact, US sources repeatedly mentioned about transfer of a nuclear weapon design by China to Pakistan in the early Eighties. However, such cooperation had different meaning and connotation when China remained outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But after it became a party to the NPT in 1992, the legal implication of its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan no longer remained the same. The transfer of ring magnets constituted a clear violation of the NPT.

The US State Department initially believed that the ring magnet deal violated the US Arms Export Control Act, which required the President to impose sanctions on any country that "transfers to a non-nuclear weapon state any design, information or component" used in building nuclear arms.8 Senator Larry Pressler was furious when he came to know about this deal. He remarked, "I am very disturbed that this illegal sale of nuclear technology was taking place at the same time...the government of Pakistan and the Clinton Administration actively were lobbying the Congress to pass the Brown Amendment."9 Senator Hank Brown, the author of the Brown Amendment, however, contended that the arms shipment issue should be kept separate from the technology transfer issue.10 What did the Clinton Administration do? It publicly asked the Export-Import Bank to defer until at least March 23, 1996, any finance for US companies wishing to export to China. Privately, the US officials told China that economic sanctions under consideration could be waived in return for China's agreement to limit future shipments of nuclear-related technology to Pakistan, since the Clinton Administration officials were worried about the cost of such a step to the American companies. In the words of a Clinton Administration official, "We are looking for information that would help us to let (China) off the hook," including a promise that no such transfers would take place in the future.11

In a few weeks time, the Clinton Administration made its plan to deliver arms to Pakistan known, despite concerns that Pakistan had not ceased its efforts for acquiring nuclear capability. Senator Pressler said, "We don't have a non-proliferation policy any more...We have an arms bazaar."12 Senator Brown, as usual, opposed Pressler. He said: "Pakistan is an ally that has stood with the United States for many years. We owe them the return of their money or the delivery of their equipment."13 There was little doubt that Brown and his supporters in the Congress were also backed by the Clinton White House and the State Department. After painstakingly working towards diluting the Pressler Amendment, the Clinton Administration was not prepared to see the ineffectiveness of the Brown Amendment.

Knowing the Clinton Administration's weakness on this issue, China rebuffed Washington's demand that China should refrain from future shipment of sensitive nuclear-related technologies to Pakistan.14 A few days later, important officials of the Clinton Administration held a meeting at the White House to discuss the Sino-Pak ring magnet deal. The meeting was attended, among others, by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Secretary of Defence William Perry, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shaliskashvili, US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Deputy Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. Some of the points made by the officials would clearly indicate what step the US would subsequently take on this issue. It was argued by some that the low financial value ($50,000 to $100,000) along with the fact that international experts had not specifically listed the magnets as banned export items might have left Chinese leaders unaware that the deal was taking place.15 Even as this meeting was going on, spokesperson Harry Philips said: "We have had no further communication with the State Department...(so) we will consider new business with China."16

In the cost-benefit analysis, it was already decided that the goal was to avoid imposing sanctions against China and Pakistan. As a result, the arguments were made and the facts were ignored accordingly. Two important facts may be mentioned in this regard. The Washington Times reported on April 3 that the CIA had evidence that China was supplying technicians and equipment for a plutonium reprocessing plant in Pakistan.17 On April 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that some of the Chinese officials privately admitted selling 5,000 ring magnets to Pakistan. The Chinese officials, who included a Vice President of the National Nuclear Corporation of China, argued that the magnets were not magnetised and thus did not violate the Nuclear Suppliers Group's (NSG) trigger list. A US State Department official reacted sharply against the Chinese argument and said that it was not difficult to magnetise the magnets and that it was like "selling a fighter jet to someone and saying we didn't fill up the fuel tank."18

On the same day, ironically, an Ex-Im Bank loan was approved for China. Why did the Clinton Administration not punish China? It was asserted that the Chinese government was unaware of the transfer of ring magnets to Pakistan! And that the Chinese officials had promised not to make such transfers in the future and agreed to consult the US on export control policies in future. The US official statement of May 10, 1996, said: "...the Chinese assured us that China will not provide assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities and the Chinese will now confirm this in a public statement...The Secretary of State has concluded that there is not a sufficient basis to warrant a determination that sanctionable activity occurred under Section 825 of the Nuclear Proliferation Act of 1994."19 The Chinese official statement was released several hours later. It did not make any specific reference to future sales of ring magnets and it did not make any commitment that sales of similar, nuclear-related equipment would not be made.20

The US officials interpreted the Chinese statement as an indication of agreement with the US position. The State Department spokesman Nicholas Burn said: "What we got is what we would have sought from the Chinese to remove sanctions had they been imposed." However, the US legislators reacted differently. The House of Representatives responded by passing a "sense of Congress" resolution that China should have been sanctioned.21 It may be mentioned here that all this political drama was unfolding at the time the US, China and others were negotiating for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at Geneva!

M-11 Missiles

In the midst of the controversy over the ring magnets and the debate on whether to impose sanctions, Washington made new allegations that Chinese M-11 missile parts were sold to Pakistan after US sanctions were lifted in 1994. Director John Holum of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) indicated that sanctions against China could be imposed under the MTCR if sales were confirmed.22 Close on the heels of the US decision not to impose sanctions against China over the ring magnets deal, a June 12, 1996, report in the Washington Times about Pakistan for the first time deploying a nuclear-capable Chinese-supplied M-11 missile once again created sensation in the United States as well as in South Asia. The M-11 missiles, supplied by China to Pakistan, pose absolutely no security threat to the United States. Nor does Pakistan's claimed nuclear capability. But Pakistan's efforts to acquire nuclear and missile capabilities have always been debated, discussed, and criticised in the United States which at least in principle champions the cause of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

After weeks of confusing and sometimes conflicting signals about imposition of sanctions against China and Pakistan, the Clinton Administration finally decided to go ahead with the implementation of the Brown Amendment and make shipments of weapons and other military equipment to Pakistan. There was little to believe that the US would halt the implementation of the Brown Amendment as a punishment against the deployment of M-11 missiles by Pakistan. In fact, the political battle to water down intelligence findings on the M-11 deployment almost immediately started in Washington. While the responsible Congressmen and Senators deplored the Pakistani action and accused China and Pakistan of indulging in "illegal activity" making the region more unstable, the State Department, which is in charge of implementation of US foreign policy, seemed determined to downplay the significance of the development.

The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research did not think that the M-11 missiles in Pakistan were "operational," since there was not adequate information about that country's "training practices." Significantly, this line of argument was given despite the fact that the MTCR principles are not concerned with the "operational" part of the missiles and they have more to do with the transfer of missiles. The US State Department's position, on the other hand, confirmed the actual Chinese sale of the M-11 missiles or their components to Pakistan, about which the Clinton Administration officials were self-admittedly not sure for quite some time. The US intelligence community, however, had little doubt. After a close CIA briefing on this issue, Representative Curt Weldon said: "In fact, the missiles are there--our intelligence community has affirmed this beyond a reasonable doubt--and for the purposes of the US law, it is irrelevant whether the missiles have become operational."23 In fact, during this briefing, the US intelligence analysts reportedly indicated that a unit of the Pakistani Army had been assigned to the missiles and had been trained by the Chinese experts.24

The US government's reluctance to take action against the Sino-Pakistan M-11 missile deal was in sharp contrast to the imposition of US sanctions against the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Russian Glavcosmos over the Indo-Russian cryogenic rocket engine deal. It is also in sharp contrast to the US position on India's indigenous missile programme, such as the Prithvi missiles.

In this case, the head of the Missile and Space Division of the State Department, Allen W. Locke, went a few steps ahead of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research's position and challenged the very conclusion of the intelligence community. The Department's spokesman Nicholas Burns went to the extent of stating that one of the disservices of the leaked information is that "it completely scrambled this story" for the people who are not "experts in the arcane nature of the law." The reason why the State Department appeared jittery about the leak was its possible impact on the CTBT negotiations at Geneva where India had sought to link the issue of the CTBT with a time-bound proposal for nuclear disarmament. Admitting the deployment of M-11 missiles by Pakistan would expose the US duplicity of rewarding the proliferators and opposing the Indian stand in favour of complete nuclear disarmament.

The US inaction or rather tacit support to Pakistan's quest for a missile capability was further indicated by its silence when it was reported in August 1996 that Pakistan was building a secret plant to produce medium range missiles with Chinese assistance. While the construction of the plant started in 1995 and the US intelligence agencies were aware of this development, they did not make it public earlier. Although an unnamed US official said that "there is no question there is an involvement by China," the US officials did not raise this issue with their Chinese counterparts in July during their discussion on nuclear weapons-related exports. Vice President Al Gore reportedly stated, "We're monitoring it very carefully and we have an active ongoing dialogue with China on this very point."25 But the senior officials of the Clinton Administration preferred to avoid a confrontation with China. One of them remarked: "This has been in the category of too hot to touch unless it jumps up to bite you."26 It was a very significant remark. Since the Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation did not bite the American interests, there was no reason why the US government should have been unduly worried about it. The unfortunate aspect of it was that policy makers in Washington were simultaneously insensitive about the Indian concern over this. Months later, in October 1996, ACDA Director Holum did discuss this issue with the Chinese officials, but stated that the US had not made a "determination based on information" that "any further sanctions are warranted."27 The following month, the US State Department more candidly explained the US position on China's arms transfer policy. The spokesman said: "We cannot allow a single issue to torpedo the relationship and we cannot allow disagreements on single issues to cancel diplomatic contacts." No one expected the US to cancel diplomatic contacts with China! But the spokesman's statement needs to be documented. While emphasising, "We do treat very seriously allegations that China has engaged in improper trade with Iran and Pakistan," but "we have not determined that China has violated the current commitments it has made to the United States or to other members of the international community."28 What is significant here is characterisation of the US intelligence assessments, estimates and findings by the State Department spokesman as "allegations."


If these are the historical precedences, one wonders how China's role in promoting proliferation could be checked by the US action. In other words, one doubts the veracity of the US logic that nuclear cooperation would encourage China to strengthen its non-proliferation commitments. Of course, one may say that the Clinton Administration still has to overcome the Congressional barriers before really implementing the agreement. Even after giving the required certification, the White House has to get the approval of the US Congress. Action on more than a dozen pending China-related Bills has been deferred to prevent Clinton and his foreign policy team from blaming a less-than-successful summit with Jiang Zemin on Congress. The legislations included, among other things, the US-Taiwan Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence Cooperation Bill requiring the US to develop plans for a theatre missile defence system for Taiwan and calling on the President to make such items available for sale to Taiwan, the Cruise Missile Proliferation Bill seeking to declare China's C-802 and C-801 missile sales to Iran to be destabilising and, therefore, a violation of the Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation Act of 1992,29 and many others. These Bills awaiting Congressional action "are a manifestation of the frustration and dissatisfaction that many members are experiencing with the way the Clinton Administration has pursued its China policy."30

However, if the Clinton Administration could succeed in its lobbying efforts during the passage of the Brown Amendment, there is no reason to believe that it would not succeed in this case. Unlike in the case of the Brown Amendment, nuclear cooperation with China would have tremendous backing from the US business houses. In fact, business has apparently begun to lead diplomacy in US-China relations. Of late, the US business community has developed a web of relationships with top Chinese government officials that seems to be far deeper than anything Washington's diplomacy has yet accomplished. Significantly, Jiang Zemin spent more time with American businessmen during the recent trip to the US than with the US policy makers and Administration officials. But it is more complicated than meets the eye.31

Once implemented, the Congressional control over the US-China nuclear cooperation accord would be considerably reduced. Article 2, Section 1, of the 1985 agreement stipulates that the "parties recognise, with respect to the observance of this agreement, the principle of international law that provides that a party may not invoke the provisions of its internal laws as justification for its failure to perform a treaty."32 In the absence of Congressional control, the executive branch of the government would be in a more flexible position to authorise or deny sale of nuclear technology to China. In that case, the US business interests would be better able to exert pressure and get their desire fulfilled much more quickly. What India may have to come to terms with is the fact that Sino-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation may go ahead in the future, despite the US measures to encourage China to strengthen its non-proliferation commitments and encourage Pakistan to abandon the nuclear path.



1. The Hindu, November 1, 1997.

2. Jennifer Weeks, "Sino-US Nuclear Cooperation at a Crossroads," Arms Control Today, June/July 1997, p. 7.

3. Times of India, October 29, 1997.

4. New York Times, April 23, 1997, Arms Control Reporter, July 1997.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Arms Control Reporter, February 1996.

8. Ibid.

9. Washington Post, February 8, 1996. Washington Times, February 8, 1996, Arms Control Reporter, Chronology, April 1996.

10. Ibid.

11. Washington Post, February 28, 1996; Ibid.

12. New York Times, March 21, 1996; Ibid., June 1996.

13. Ibid.

14. Washington Post, March 27, 1996; Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. The plant was being built near a reactor at Chasma to receive spent nuclear fuel more easily and cost effectively, Arms Control Reporter, June 1996.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Washington Post, May 14, 1996; Ibid., June 1996.

21. Washington Post, May 16, 1996; Ibid.

22. Reuters, March 7, 1996; Ibid.

23. Washington Times, June 21, 1996. Washington Post, June 13, 1996, Arms Control Reporter, September 1996.

24. Ibid.

25. Washington Post, August 25, 1996; New York Times, August 26, 1996, Arms Control Reporter, Ibid., 1996.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. New York Times, November 21, 1996; Washington Times, November 22, 1996; Arms Control Reporter, January 1997.

29. This law applies to Iran the same export licence prohibitions applied to Iraq in the Iraq Sanctions Act of 1990. It also mandates sanctions against any foreign government that transfers technology or goods that help Iran or Iraq acquire advanced conventional weapons or WMD.

30. Defense News, October 20-26, 1997.

31. International Herald Tribune, October 29, 1997.

32. Weeks, n. 2, p. 7-8.