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Bejing—Documents declassified March 6 indicate that while President Bush was crusading against Iraq’s mythical nuclear program, three other “axis of evil” countries — Libya, Iran and North Korea — were building nuclear weapons that could reach New York using missile designs provided by Pakistan and China, both of whom are U.S. allies in the war against terror.
The documents, dating from 1965 to 1997, reveal that “China provided assistance to Pakistan’s program to develop a nuclear weapon capability” and stalled U.S. investigations through deceptions, false promises and lies. And even today, the CIA cannot confirm that China has cut illicit nuclear ties with its client states.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, investigating Libya and Iran’s illicit nuclear programs, already has said they were based on Chinese technology provided through Pakistan.
By Bush’s own definition this should crown the China-Pakistan axis as the most evil of them all. Yet the White House is trying to dismiss China’s violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as a momentary lapse that belongs to the past.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the top U.S. arms control official with close political links to the White House, flew to Beijing two weeks before the declassified documents were released and declared that Beijing is now cooperating with the United States to prevent proliferation.
Despite Bush’s “I‑will-protect-America-at-any-cost” mantra, the administration knows it can’t get too tough with China and Pakistan. Sino‑U.S. trade stands at $150 billion, and China is funding a substantial part of Bush’s $1.5 trillion deficit by holding almost $350 billion in U.S. treasury bills. Bush also needs China to keep a lid on the fracas his own bluster has created in North Korea. And in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraff remains indispensable in the war against terror.
But doubts remain about whether China is taking U.S. nuclear concerns seriously. Just four days after the declassified documents were released, Beijing announced that it would help Pakistan build a new nuclear facility at Chashma in the Punjab state. Washington had opposed the deal, particularly as Musharraff is only midway in his effort to cleanse Pakistan’s nuclear establishment of rogue scientists.
China says the Chashma plant is civilian and does not break a 1996 promise made to President Bill Clinton that China would end all assistance to nuclear plants not under international safeguards. But the CIA has consistently said that China has not adhered to the promise.
Some sources allege that Beijing facilitated the supply of nuclear technology to North Korea via Pakistan as recently as 2002 — when Bush was asking Beijing to join Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow in pressuring Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program.
In late 2002, Western intelligence agencies caught Pakistan flying nuclear weapons technology to North Korea in exchange for ballistic missile parts. Less publicized was the fact that the planes, Hercules C‑130s, could not have flown from Islamabad to Pyongyang without using Chinese airspace. Some intelligence sources say the planes re-fueled at the Lanzhou military base in central China.
It is possible, even likely, that the Bush administration is using behind-the-scenes arm-twisting (in the case of Pakistan) and parlays (in the case of China) to address these concerns. But Washington has a long history of prioritizing more immediate economic and security interests.
The declassified documents reveal how Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush certified to Congress that China had not assisted Pakistan in acquiring nuclear capability, even when they knew this was untrue.
Bush is likely to come under pressure to get China and Pakistan to come clean on their illicit nuclear activities. The international community will want to know how the clandestine network was built and run and who its third-party associates were. Unless this is done, the network could be revived and the rogue middlemen involved could resume their trade. The presence of Chinese nuclear technicians in Myanmar already is causing concern in security circles.
“An investigation by China into its proliferation would be a great victory for transparency, [but] Beijing is more likely to sustain the secrecy surrounding its decisions on the Pakistani nuclear program,” said William Burr, director of the National Security Archives’ Nuclear Project Documentation center and one of the people responsible for getting the documents declassified.
If China resists an inquiry, some say the United States and European Union, which already have arms embargoes in place against China, should expand those to cover dual-use technologies and pressure Russia into joining the effort.
But the most important thing, says a Western diplomat familiar with Beijing, is that the West needs to change its mindset.
“We need to accept that for now these countries are not our friends,” he says. “They may be allies of convenience and we can do business with them. But we need to look to countries like India, Indonesia and Japan to secure our Asian interests.”
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