Possible New Role for China: Agent for Nuclear Calm in Asia

Pakistani officials visited Beijing this week about India's nuclear tests.

India's nuclear tests have triggered a chain reaction of changes in Asia's security landscape, and China could turn out to be the big winner if it keeps Pakistan from exploding a retaliatory bomb.

"India's nuclear experiments go against the world effort to end tests, and has remarkably cast India's democracy as the 'bad guy' in the region," says a Western official. "In contrast, China's progress toward nonproliferation has been one of the great unwritten stories of the last year," adds the official, who asked that his name not be used.

Unlike India, China has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is aimed at ending all nuclear tests, and last October Washington approved a US-China agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation.

Although China is believed to have transferred nuclear technology to countries ranging from North Korea to Pakistan, it could use the present crisis to emerge as a new force in Asia for nuclear nonproliferation, the Western official adds.

China has long been one of Pakistan's biggest weapons suppliers, and a delegation of Pakistani military and government personnel visited Beijing this week to consult about Islamabad's response to India's tests.

Although Beijing and Islamabad have both fought India during the past half-century, "China is unlikely to openly declare a military alliance with Pakistan," says an Indian scholar with high government contacts. "The big question is whether Beijing wants to prevent Pakistan from testing its own nuclear device," he adds. "If it does, Beijing may make private guarantees to protect Pakistan under China's nuclear umbrella."

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said he discussed regional and global issues with his Pakistani counterpart in Beijing this week, but neither side has disclosed details of any new security arrangement.

China fought a brief war against India in 1962, and the world's two most populous countries are still engaged in a dispute over huge sections of their border along the Himalayas. But trade between the Asian giants has skyrocketed, and diplomatic ties seemed to be warming until India conducted its five underground tests last week. On the eve of India's becoming the world's sixth declared nuclear power, India's Defense Minister George Fernandes shocked the region by naming China, not Pakistan, as India's top potential threat.

'Myth of a China threat'

"India is trying to use the myth of a 'China Threat' to gain world sympathy for its nuclear tests," says Yan Xuetong, a researcher at the Beijing-based China Institute for Contemporary International Relations. In reaction, China has labeled India a "hegemonist," the term Beijing usually reserves for its prime enemy, adds Mr. Yan.

As China moves toward becoming an economic superpower, "it increasingly looms large in India's security concerns," says David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University. Besides declaring itself a nuclear state, "India is also developing missiles to deliver bombs anywhere inside China."

In response, "China will probably move more missile launchers onto the Tibetan plateau, where they could launch nuclear or conventional weapons," Professor Shambaugh says. Chinese scholar Yan says, "China is angry about India's tests, but will not take any military action in response.... The Chinese Army still sees this as a political rather than a military issue."

China's grievances against its southern neighbor include India's giving sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees since the People's Liberation Army crossed into Tibet in 1950. "Some leaders may interpret India's giving refuge to Tibetan separatists, then naming Beijing a prime threat, and then testing nuclear devices as a pattern of long-term hostility toward China," says Yan.

Asian arms race

The most serious outcome of India's tests could be that they set off a nuclear arms race, says the Western official, and the world is watching to see if China backs or prevents similar moves by Pakistan. "India's tests could trigger a new round of nuclear escalation and strengthen Pakistan's resolve to conduct its own tests," Yan says. "China has not yet outlined a clear policy" to respond to the nuclear tests by India or to aid Pakistan, he says. "It's undeniable that China and the US have a common interest in stopping nuclear proliferation in South Asia."

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