China virtually gave Pakistan two nuclear weapons on a platter while the US remained oblivious and smug, says a report in Times of India. This disclosure comes on the eve of US President Barack Obama's China visit.
The report says, in the early 1980s, China provided Pakistan with nuclear know-how and materials to enable it to make the bomb, in part to weigh down India and in part out of gratitude to Islamabad for facilitating its opening to US.
But astonishing details of the transaction, which China has blithely denied because it is in violation of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations, have been exposed by Pakistan's Father of Nuclear Bomb A.Q.Khan to spite the military which incarcerated him.
In a letter that Khan sent to British journalist Simon Henderson, parts of which have already been made public with the latest dribble coming out ahead of Obama's visit to China next week, the Pakistani metallurgist reveals the following sequence of an episode the broad contours of which are well known despite Chinese-Pakistani subterfuge for nearly 30 years:
Khan reveals that in 1976, some four years after India tested its first nuclear device, Pakistan's then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto approached China's supreme leader Chairman Mao in his quest for the nuclear bomb. By this time, Bhutto had already invited expat Pakistani scientists, including A.Q.Khan, to return home to help Islamabad make the bomb to ensure that the country was never again humiliated by India the way it happened in 1971.
Mao died soon after, but according to Khan, the matter was advanced in talks he and two other Pakistani officials, including then foreign secretary Agha Shahi, had with Chinese officials at Mao's funeral. It was not a one-sided transaction: the Pakistanis told the Chinese how European-designed centrifuges (whose designs Khan had stolen) could swiftly aid China's lagging uranium-enrichment program.
Khan wrote; "Chinese experts started coming regularly to learn the whole technology" from Pakistan and Pakistani experts were dispatched to Hanzhong in central China, where they helped "put up a centrifuge plant." Khan said this in an account he gave to his wife after Musharraf purged him under US pressure. That letter eventually found its way to the Henderson who shared it with the Washington Post, which advanced the story on Thursday.
"We sent 135 C-130 plane loads of machines, inverters, valves, flow meters, pressure gauges," Khan wrote. "Our teams stayed there for weeks to help and their teams stayed here for weeks at a time."
Initially, it appears China sent Pakistan 15 tons of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a feedstock for Pakistan's centrifuges that Khan's colleagues were having difficulty producing on their own. Evidently, Khan had made the centrifuges from the designs he stole but did not have enough raw material to run it. Khan said the gas enabled the laboratory to begin producing bomb-grade uranium in 1982. Chinese scientists also helped the Pakistanis solve other nuclear weapons challenges.
By then, Gen.Zia-ul Haq had taken over the reigns in Islamabad and had hanged Bhutto. Rumors of a pre-emptive strike by India and Israel on Pakistan's nuclear program rattled Zia, who sent Khan and an unnamed Pakistani general to Beijing with a request in mid-1982 to borrow enough bomb-grade uranium for a few weapons.
After winning Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's approval, Khan, the general and two others flew aboard a US made Pakistani C-130 to Urumqi. Khan says they enjoyed barbecued lamb while waiting for the Chinese military to pack the small uranium bricks into lead-lined boxes, 10 single-kilogram ingots to a box for a total of 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), for the flight back to Islamabad.
"The Chinese gave us drawings of the nuclear weapon, gave us kg50 enriched uranium," Khan wrote in letter to his wife Henny which was meant to be an expose to get even with the military, which locked him up on proliferation charges even though Khan says they were part of the transactions approved by all governments that came to power in Islamabad, civilian or military.
By Khan's account, Pakistan did not initially use the Chinese fissile material and kept it in storage till 1985 because they had made a “few bombs” with their own material. The Pakistanis then asked Beijing if it wanted its nuclear material back. After a few days, Khan says the Chinese wrote back "that the HEU loaned earlier was now to be considered as a gift... in gratitude" for Pakistani help. The Pakistanis promptly used the Chinese material to fabricate hemispheres for two weapons and added them to Pakistan's arsenal.
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 a separate 11-page narrative that the Post said he wrote for Pakistani intelligence officials.
Through all the skullduggery, it appears that Beijing continued to lie baldly even as Washington lived in blissful ignorance through occasional lurking suspicion. Time and again, Chinese officials lied about adhering to the international duty of prevention the proliferation of nuclear weapons. US officials too hummed and hawed about the transactions because at the height of the Islamabad-Beijing exchanges, Washington was dependent on Pakistan to rout Soviet Union from Afghanistan and it was also warming up to Beijing, where the senior George Bush had served as the US envoy before returning to Washington DC as the CIA Director and then becoming vice-president under Ronald Reagan.
But the big question now is what Barack Obama will do about a transaction the Washington Post called ''an exceptional, deliberate act of proliferation by a nuclear power.''
The US President, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his activism on several fronts, including his intent to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, arrives in Beijing on Tuesday on a swing through East Asia that will take him to Japan and South Korea, two other US allies also concerned about China.
Unless Obama takes note of the disclosures and acts on them, he will be seen to joining a long list of US Presidents, including Reagan, Bush, Clinton, whose concern about proliferation were largely cosmetic and selective, resulting in a free pass to China and Pakistan, The TOI report says.
Meanwhile, Pakistan on Friday dismissed the media report as "baseless" describing it as an effort to divert attention from support being extended by "some states" to India's nuclear programme.
Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit described the allegations made in the Washington Post article as "baseless".
"Pakistan strongly rejects the assertions in the article that is evidently timed to malign Pakistan and China," he said.
"This is yet another attempt to divert attention from the overt and covert support being extended by some states to the Indian nuclear programme since its inception and intensified more recently in stark contradiction to their self-avowed commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," he said.
Pakistan and China have "comprehensive and all-dimensional cooperation", which includes civilian nuclear cooperation for peaceful purposes, Basit said.
"This has always been above board. Pakistan and China have always respected their respective international obligations and non-proliferation norms," he said.