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The China-Pakistan Nuclear Connection Revealed

November 18, 2009

An extraordinary article in The Washington Post on November 13, 2009, by R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick broke open the story of Chinese-Pakistani secret nuclear technology sharing during the 1970s and 1980s.  Earlier work by Warrick and Peter Slevin disclosed Beijing’s transfer of nuclear design data to Pakistan, but this article shows for the first time how the two countries launched their nuclear cooperation program.

The notorious Pakistani nuclear technologist Abdul Qadeer Khan played a key role, and one of Smith-Warrick’s primary sources is Khan’s personal account of the episode.   The nuclear relationship began with a meeting in 1976 between the mortally ill Mao Zedong and Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, which “set the terms of the exchange.”  While Bejing would ultimately provide Islamabad with the design of a nuclear weapon and 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, nuclear sharing was reciprocal.

When A. Q. Khan accompanied the Pakistani delegation to Mao’s funeral in September 1976, he met with top Chinese nuclear authorities, whom he briefed on the gaseous diffusion technology that he had stolen from a Dutch company.   The Pakistanis assisted “China’s lagging uranium-enrichment program,” eventually helping build a plant in Hanzhong, and in return Beijing provided uranium hexafluoride, necessary for producing weapons-grade material, among other benefits.

The Smith-Warwick account confirms long-standing suspicions in Washington and elsewhere during the 1980s that China was providing nuclear assistance to Pakistan.  Several of the documents cited by Smith and Warrick appeared in a National Security Archive electronic briefing book on China, Pakistan, and the Bomb: The Declassified File on U.S. Policy, 1977-1997.

bhutto-pageA key item in this collection is a 1983 State Department report indicating that Pakistan had “sought help” from the Chinese on uranium enrichment technologies.  The report further stated that “we now believe cooperation has taken place in the area of fissile material production and possibly also nuclear weapon design.”  No further details were provided, though future declassifications may shed light on these suspicions.

It is worth noting that in 1976, the inaugural year for China-Pakistani nuclear cooperation,  Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met several times with Bhutto, first in February and then in August, after Bhutto’s meeting with Mao.  Kissinger’s concern about Pakistan’s interest in nuclear weapons was a theme of the first meeting (and subsequent interactions with Pakistan during 1976), but the focus was on nuclear reprocessing; uranium enrichment was not yet a concern.  During the second meeting, Bhutto reviewed his meeting with Mao, but of course, stayed clear of any sensitive subjects.

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