Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made the first request to China to help Pakistan to develop nuclear weapon capabilities to match India’s budding programme when he was foreign minister in 1965, but China at that time was non- committal. In 1976 he urged the Chinese again to oblige, and this time they agreed to supply Pakistan with blueprints for a fission weapon around or before 1983. Pakistan had been the most loyal and consistent supporter of China in the international arena on all issues: the United Nations; Taiwan; Tibet; human rights; etc. Strategic factors that led China to change its position were the amputation of East Pakistan by India’s intervention in The Bangladesh Liberation War: 1971 and India’s first nuclear test in 1974. China was not the first and only foreign contributor. The first illicit supplier of nuclear technology came from the Netherlands in the form of the theft of nuclear blueprints by A.Q. Khan, who was to emerge as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Indirect support came from Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria and the United States.
China joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984. China supplied M-11 missiles to Pakistan and maintained that this was within the Missile Technology Control Regime. In 1986, China concluded a comprehensive nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan. Chinese scientists began assisting Pakistan with the enrichment of weapons’ grade uranium, and China reportedly also transferred tritium gas to Pakistan, which could be used to achieve fusion in hydrogen bombs and boost the yield of atomic bombs. Pakistan had been under threat of far-reaching US sanctions since the so-called ‘Pressler Amendment’ was adopted in 1985, which banned military aid to Pakistan unless the US President could certify that Pakistan neither possessed nuclear weapons nor was trying to develop them. Pakistan could manipulate its relationship with the United States as an indispensable ally as long as the Cold War prevailed. The US withheld military equipment from Pakistan that was contracted prior to 1990, worth about US$ 1.2 billion, even though Pakistan had paid for this. The end of the Cold War brought further cuts, and in summer 1993 additional sanctions were imposed under the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) for allegedly receiving missile technology from China. The United States also had so much evidence of Chinese assistance to the Pakistani nuclear programme that it imposed sanctions on China in 1991, but these were already partially lifted in 1993.
France joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1991, and China followed suit in 1992, but continued to criticize the discriminatory nature of the Treaty and reiterated that it did not view non-proliferation as an end in itself, but rather as a means to the ultimate objective of the complete prohibition and destruction of nuclear weapons. In 1992 China also agreed to abide by the MTRC. Nevertheless, Chinese supplies of missiles and nuclear materials, including M-11 and M-9 missiles, surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and highly enriched uranium (HEU) continued all through the 1990s.
Even after acceding to the NPT, China continued to assist illicit nuclear weapons’ programmes, for instance in addition to supplying Algeria with a plutonium-production reactor, China has supplied Iraq with lithium hydride, in violation of the international embargo on Iraq; Iran with a research reactor and a calutron, a technology that can be used to enrich uranium to weapons’ grade; and Pakistan with tritium and specialized ring magnets, used in Pakistan’s uranium enrichment programme.
The United States and China had a non-stop showdown over China’s nuclear arming of Pakistan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. US policy was aimed at preventing Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons’ capability by threatening to cut off economic and conventional military aid and imposing sanctions. Once it joined the NPT in 1992, China observed its legal obligations but continued to oppose restrictions on nuclear transfers and assistance under the name of non-proliferation. While direct Chinese assistance in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ programme has ended and the scope of nuclear technology transfers also narrowed, activities that could contribute indirectly to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ programme have continued. The US 2003 Non-Compliance Report, submitted to Congress, charged that: ‘Chinese state-owned corporations have engaged in transfer activities with Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Libya that are clearly contrary to China’s commitments to the United States’.