Countering the Rogue Nuclear Triad of China, Pakistan and North Korea

By arming countries in China's periphery, India could undermine the security system Beijing has so ruthlessly installed to further its goal of domination.

The Musudan missiles. Credit: Reuters

The Musudan missiles. Credit: Reuters

North Korea’s fifth underground nuclear test, when it happens sometime later this year, will occasion dread and set off the usual flutter of apprehension in the West. With this, the perception will grow of the bomb affording vulnerable states near absolute security in a complex international threat system, and leading to the spread of nuclear weapons and the breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Treaty-based nuclear order. Leading the charge in dismantling the NPT system is the rogue nuclear triad of China, Pakistan and North Korea, which has left its footprint in the major hot spots of the world (Iran, Iraq, Libya). But, curiously, far from suffering any retribution, these states have individually benefitted from their proliferation activity. This may be because, with China at its core and Pakistan, the US’s perennial “frontline state”, in the mix, Washington is disinclined to exercise forceful actions, fearing unpredictable outcomes. The reluctance may also be because the US and many European countries had a role in establishing the triad, and now find it impolitic to acknowledge the menace they created, let alone deal with it.

The fact is, triadic arrangements to clandestinely transfer nuclear materials, technology and expertise have been the disruptive means in the nuclear age to strengthen strategic partners, unsettle adversaries, cultivate diplomatic and military leverage, maintain regional balance and otherwise to influence international politics. By permitting states more fluidly to share resources, responsibility, executable actions and to dissipate external pressure, such schemes – quasi-military alliances actually – are flexible, historically proven instruments to achieve large strategic goals. Participation in nuclear triads, moreover, allows states to maximise their mischief value and to pursue risky policies under the protective cover of the principal state – China, in the present case.

The precursor triads

Nuclear proliferation occurred early in the Cold War on a bilateral basis as part of the intra-bloc capacity-building of allies. In many cases, the dyads grew into triads involving states in ideological or strategic sync. In the 1950s, the US separately assisted the UK and then France to become nuclear weapon states. Post the 1956 Suez Crisis, the US and France helped nuclearise Israel, resulting in a jointly-designed French-Israeli nuclear device being tested in the Algerian desert in 1959. Then, in a sort of nuclear daisy chain, under the US aegis, Israel provided erstwhile white-ruled South Africa with nuclear weapon capability. In the new century, considerations of economical use of resources led to a revamped US-UK-France cooperative scheme to share nuclear weapons research and development expertise and infrastructure, as well as to cut modernisation costs. Thus British scientists from the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston utilised the 2006 Anglo-French ‘Teutates Project’ to configure the original B-76 design given to the UK by the US in 1980 into the new B-76-1 Mk-4 nuclear bomb/warhead capable of taking out hardened targets, a design approved by Sandia nuclear weapons laboratories in March 2011 before, presumably, going into production.

A similar Cold War intra-bloc dynamic prompted the Soviet Union to seed China’s nuclear military program until the ideological rift between the two Communist countries in the mid-fifties led to the abrupt termination of Russian technical assistance. But by then having mastered the relevant science and technologies, China tested an implosive fission device in 1964 and, three years later, a thermonuclear bomb, thereby securing itself against both the Soviet Union and the US. Bolstered by the rapprochement with the US in the early seventies, China cast its sights wider. Appositely, Washington’s myopic, “realpolitik”-infused policies of the Nixon era to nurture the ‘China card’ to use against the Soviet Union allowed China to rapidly become a global manufacturing base, a trading powerhouse, a wealthy economy and a burgeoning military power to eventually surface as a peer competitor and great power rival to the US.

China’s military advancement is recognisably the skew factor. It was also in the early 1970s that Pakistan, afflicted by terminal insecurity aggravated by the 1971 war that saw India midwife an independent Bangladesh, approached China for seminal nuclear assistance. India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974, a much delayed realisation of the weapons threshold reached in March 1964, subsequently offered Pakistan a justification. China jumped at the opportunity to permanently hobble India, its natural Asian rival, and contain it to the subcontinent by arming Pakistan with nuclear missiles. This proliferation began in the era when India was regarded by Washington as a Soviet stooge, a perception cemented by the 1971 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that deterred potential armed interventions by the US and/or China to forestall the Indian dismemberment of Pakistan. Beijing compensated for the 1971 lapse in their “all weather friendship” by transferring nuclear goods and expertise to Islamabad and vetted a Pakistani-designed nuclear device and tested it at the Lop Nor site in 1990.

Pakistani nuclear A.Q. Khan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A.Q. Khan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Washington was incentivised to do nothing about Pakistan’s nuclear empowerment by General Zia ul-Haq’s 1979 deal permitting the US Central Intelligence Agency to use Pakistani territory and resources to wage an asymmetric guerrilla campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. What is not as well known is Pakistan paying back China with sensitive Western technologies. The blueprints for the individual vertical centrifuge and for the centrifuge cascades at the Urenco plant at Almelo in the Netherlands purloined by A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani-origin metallurgist working at the Urenco plant, became the initial currency for technology barter. In exchange for Chinese nuclear weapons design, relevant materials and bomb-making expertise, Pakistan offered advanced centrifuge technology to China, facilitating its switchover from the costly, clunky and obsolete gaseous diffusion enrichment stream it was stuck in. With a view to help China reverse-engineer and incorporate into its aerial combat platforms the latest technical advancements, Pakistan allowed Chinese aviation experts to scrutinise and study the US F-16 aircraft inducted into its air force. More recently, a Tomahawk long-range cruise missile fired from an American warship in the Arabian Sea at a Taliban target in Afghanistan that crash-landed in Pakistan, and the remains of the high-tech stealth rotors of the helicopter that crashed in Abbottabad during the 2011 US SEAL operation to take out Osama bin Laden, were passed on by Pakistan to China. That Washington never took umbrage at these Pakistani leaks of its technologies suggests the China-Pakistan-US (CPUS) collusion is still on. Moreover, the CPUS triad was established in the late 1970s, around the time the US and Israel were materially assisting the apartheid regime in Pretoria to acquire nuclear weapons . It undercut any Western moral outrage and criticism of Beijing’s policy of nuclear missile arming both an unstable Islamic state, Pakistan, and, subsequently, a reckless regime in North Korea, which ended up forming in the 1990s the full-blown rogue nuclear triad of China, Pakistan and North Korea.

The nuclear rogues: dependent on China and the West’s denial

Whether the CPUS triad should be considered rogue depends on how one views the China-Pakistan-North Korea triangle. If one is rogue the other is too because they are joined at the hip. Just how deeply Washington is engaged in the CPUS trilateral can be gauged from how the US government still propagates the fiction that the “nuclear Walmart” that sold sensitive nuclear technologies for cash to Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi-ruled Libya, and as payment-in-kind to North Korea, was a commercial venture run illegally and exclusively by Khan to enrich himself, when actually it was from the beginning a well-oiled Pakistan army-run operation. The Pakistan-North Korea nexus, in turn, was forged at China’s behest as a convenient route for Beijing to proliferate nuclear weapon and missile technologies to these countries. Specifically, Pakistan-produced centrifuges were traded for North Korean missiles and technologies transferred by China to Pyongyang. It is the established pattern of remote Chinese proliferation. This triad has since grown into a complex web of strategic interlinks.

Ruled by the mercurial Kim family, North Korea has all along been the triad’s ace card to keep the US and its Asian allies off-kilter, and give China the advantage. An absolute dependency of China, the Kim Jon-un dispensation precipitates strategic crises with South Korea, Japan and the US at will, or at Beijing’s prompting. China then inserts itself into a downward spiralling situation as the intermediary able to hammer sense into a supposedly risk-acceptant Pyongyang, to prevent a tense situation with Seoul and/or Tokyo and/or Washington from becoming worse. It earns Beijing grudging respect and even a measure of goodwill from the US, Japan and South Korea as a situation stabiliser. In comparison, Pakistan is too constrained by its traditional links to the US and the West to be as useful to China, but its pugnacity keeps India distracted. With two able and willing nuclear conspirators, Beijing keeps the geopolitical pot simmering at the two ends of Asia, enhancing its diplomatic stock as the indispensable middleman and peacekeeper in the Korean Peninsula and potentially in South Asia.

While some aspects of the dyadic activities of the China-Pakistan-North Korea combo have come to light, the dots have seemingly not been connected by the US or any other Western government, or even by Japan and South Korea. If they have indeed noted the growing nuclear association between the three outliers, they have abstained from even acknowledging the problem, other than to complain about Pyongyang’s provocations. The fact is the three rogue countries act in concert to advance their separate politico-strategic interests. Consider the separate stakes of these nuclear rogue states. China is at the core of this cabal responsible for almost all nuclear proliferation in the world since 1975. “Deng Xiaoping’s China apparently decided”, writes Thomas C. Reed, a one-time nuclear weapon designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and former US Secretary for the Air Force, “to actively promote nuclear proliferation within the Third World [because] it would be in [its] best interest to accept, or even encourage, multiple nuclear events (or wars)” to thus keep the US and the West on tenterhooks. China has achieved this aim. Nuclearising Pakistan and North Korea has endowed it with the capacity, moreover, to manipulate regional and Asian power balances at the expense of India, Japan and the US, and to simultaneously blunt the strategic edge of the three countries whose getting together China fears. In this triad China’s all-round heft affords protective cover to its lesser partners.

Pakistan prizes nuclear weapons because they help it to emulate the 19th century English satirist William Makepeace Thackeray’s frog blowing itself up to ox-size. It enables Islamaba to remain relevant in the Islamic world, and in the subcontinental, Asian and global politics, gain some international traction and negotiating leverage for itself, and, by the by, dissuade a conventional military-wise superior India from taking liberties with it. But it is North Korea – the true outlaw state – that is the lynchpin. It has apparently no qualms and no interest in adhering to the rules of the road, or following established norms, or entering the international mainstream. Backed by Beijing’s unwavering support, Pyongyang exploits its pariah status to the fullest to create havoc when and where it can. Kim Jong-un’s devil-may-care attitude means the crisis North Korea periodically triggers to needle the US, frighten its Asian allies and raise China’s value as mediator, also offers Pakistan opportunities to sharpen, under Chinese expert guidance, its nuclear weapons designing and production skills and competencies, and to test its designs.

How the Pakistan-North Korea tandem – the active part of the triad – functions was evidenced in the fourth North Korean test explosion of a Pakistani crafted fusion-boosted fission (FBF) device on January 3, 2016. Preparations for it, such as the digging of an angled L-shaped tunnel in the Hamyongg Mountains, began at least three years prior to the event. Several aspects were of note: the similarities between the instrumentation bunkers at Pungyye and Pakistan’s Ras Koh nuclear testing complex; the presence of South Asian-looking men in Pyongyang and the possibility that these were Pakistani nuclear technicians readying the nuclear device for testing; the Chinese vetting of the design, and its transportation along with the fusion fuel – tritium, and highly-enriched uranium needed for the FBF device – by road across the mountainous border from the adjoining Jiangsu province to the test site in northwestern North Korea to minimise the chances of detection. The open-ended nuclear tests in North Korea of Pakistani-designed weapons under Chinese supervision offer Beijing the means of controlling the nuclear skill levels of its partners just so this issue does not end up hurting its own interests, while enabling Islamabad’s nuclear weaponeers to validate their advanced designs without Pakistan having to conduct tests on its own territory and facing the prospect of damaging Western economic and other sanctions. Throughout this process of explosive testing, Pakistan and China are insulated from its consequences, even as North Korea, immune to economic bans and prohibitions, has its reputation as a budding nuclear weapon state burnished, gaining for the Kim Jong-un dispensation the freedom from fear of an external attack or externally-induced regime change.

Pyongyang’s nuclear antics precipitate crises that heighten Beijing’s clout and enhance the confidence of the Pakistani nuclear weapons complex. The pattern is for North Korea to fire off a missile, conduct a nuclear test, or create a rumpus in the demilitarised zone and threaten to incinerate Seoul, Tokyo, or Manhattan. The targeted countries get agitated and mull an appropriate action, but ere a collective response can jell China, in its “responsible state”/stakeholder avatar joins Washington in calling for restraint, reins in its client state, leading to military de-escalation of a nascent conflictual situation and a Beijing, allergic to destabilising the current, diplomatically useful regime in Pyongyang, ensures Kim Jong-un stays on.

Such crises only deepen the mystery about how North Korea – a dirt poor, pre-industrial country with a subsistence agrarian economy and no science and technology infrastructure worth the name – has progressed inside of 20 years from the basic fission weapon stage and conventionally-armed missiles to, in 2016, testing a boosted fission nuclear device, launching a three stage rocket with an engine that can propel missiles intercontinental distances and miniaturising nuclear warheads. The literature on the Chinese policy of nuclear weaponising North Korea is meagre. There is no dearth of news reports and commentaries, however, along the lines of a nuclearised North Korea requiring Western help to avoid an implosion with potentially disastrous consequences for the region. It is a view Beijing would like to see gather steam in American policy circles in order to revive the “six party talks” that could lead to a negotiated outcome that will see the US sharing with China the costs of pacifying the mercurial Kim Jong-un regime.

North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex. Credit: Reuters

North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. Credit: Reuters

Strangely, westerners permitted access to the closed North Korean system far from being informative, end up supporting the Chinese line that Beijing has little or no influence on the North Korean nuclear programme. Thus Siegfried S. Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the main US nuclear weapons designing centre, who has visited Pyongyang’s secretive nuclear programme, said after his 2010 trip, that North Korea’s progress in the uranium enrichment field was due to Pakistan’s help with centrifuges, and raised the spectre of Pyongyang emerging as an autonomous nuclear proliferator. It is again the sort of worry the North Korean dictator and Beijing would like to see kindled in order to strengthen Pyongyang’s negotiating hand in future talks with Washington, whenever these happen. Around the time Kim Jong-un was threatening nuclear attacks on Seoul in April 2013, Hecker returned from another North Korean trip and, once again, was off on a tangent, this time referring to North Korean capability-shortfalls in centrifuge enrichment, while avoiding any mention of China’s role in that country’s advancement in the nuclear weapons sphere. Perhaps, deliberately ignoring China’s role, he wrongly asserted that nuclear warhead miniaturisation was beyond Pyongyang’s ken. Two years later, Hecker, who claims to have visited North Korea seven times and the Yongbyon nuclear complex four times, astoundingly absolved China of all responsibility for the North Korean nuclear program growing “from having the option for a bomb in 2003, to having a handful of bombs five years later, to having an expanding nuclear arsenal now”, saying flatly that “Chinese experts did not have access to Yongbyon”. In the meantime, the US military’s assessment of North Korean strategic capabilities was increasingly less sanguine. Testifying before the US House Armed Services Committee in October 2015, heads of the US Pacific Command and US Northern Command declared that North Korea can hurl missiles with miniaturised warheads at US targets and is “the greatest threat”, directly contradicting Hecker’s 2013 estimate of North Korea’s warhead miniaturising capability. In the event, the conclusion India should reasonably reach is that China, through the North Korean channel, has managed to transmit the warhead-miniaturising skills and capability both to Pakistan’s strategic plans division, to inject credibility into its tactical nuclear missile-based deterrence, and to Pyongyang.

Bending over backwards to not implicate China in Pakistan and North Korea’s nuclearisation and assigning benign motives to Beijing’s policies despite its reckless nuclear proliferation track record is something that has been correctly ascribed to Henry Kissinger’s awe of China, which has since been institutionalised, congealing into a Washington foreign policy blind spot. But it does not explain why, some 25 years after the termination of the Cold War and a decade since China’s emergence as a military rival and economic peer competitor to the US, Washington continues to coddle China – the Frankensteinian monster it created as a Cold War ploy. A powerful China now wants to construct its own world order on the ruins of the existing NPT system. Whence, Kim Jong-un is stimulated to carry on with his confrontationist tactics to maximise its own peace-keeping value and Pakistan is encouraged to keep the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) talks at the UN Commission on Disarmament in Geneva gummed up, because Beijing is unconvinced the FMCT serves its security interests. Diplomatically it is all gain and no pain for China, notwithstanding accusations by informed commentators that the US government is reinforcing “the worst tendencies in Beijing by inadvertently creating a set of perverse incentives”.

Fostering North Korea and Pakistan as nuclear security threats and helping to deal with the contingencies they create firms up the perception that no regional or international issue of war or peace can be resolved without China’s goodwill and involvement. It allows Beijing to condition its help in tackling the crises its rogue clients precipitate on the US terminating its arms sales to Taiwan,  and to carry on freely with aiding and abetting the clandestine efforts of non-weaponised nuclear aspirant states, such as Iran. As a strategy, it has helped China to decisively turn regional and international affairs to its advantage. The failure of Washington and the US’ Asian allies to recognise and react to China’s running with the hares and hunting with the hounds policy, and to accept Beijing as the source of nuclear security problems and an inalienable part of their solution, is doubly evident. China is thus nicely placed, unique in its ability to simultaneously undermine the global system, strengthen its own relative position, and to exploit the privileges and manoeuvring room it enjoys as a near great power and a Non-Proliferation Treaty-recognised nuclear weapons state to pursue its narrow national interests without regard for the common good.

A triadic counter

With Washington uneasy about doing anything other than skirting around Beijing’s culpability for creating nuclear flashpoints, Asian countries directly in the line of fire have to wonder if US President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” does not amount to doing nothing and whether the natural follow-on to this isn’t Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s view that because the US cannot, in any case, afford to protect Japan and South Korea, they would be better off procuring nuclear weapons of their own for security? In the event, is it now time to begin assembling a counter-triad of India, Japan and South Korea to take the fight to China? This is the drastic solution for the dire security situation they face, to function in an overt-covert concert to replicate for China the touch-trigger situation Beijing has created for them by arming countries in China’s periphery, such as Vietnam, with nuclear missiles and other strategic armaments.

Such a counter-triad would right the distribution of power long tilted in Beijing’s favour and strategically roil the security situation for the Asian behemoth in the manner India, Japan and South Korea have been discommoded by China and its nuclear henchmen, Pakistan and North Korea, and will be in line with the US policy of strategic partner capacity building. It is a strategy to compel Beijing, as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer put it, to “share the [nuclear] nightmare”. Such a response has become urgent with the news that China may be upping the ante by transferring wherewithal to help Islamabad and Pyongyang configure full-fledged thermonuclear armaments and ICBMs. Unless the game is turned around, and harsh payback and high costs imposed on Beijing, China will persist with its policy of targeted nuclear proliferation to undermine its adversaries.

India’s situation is in every respect more worrisome and, should Tokyo and Seoul be pressured by Washington and otherwise have reservations about participating in a counter-triad to blunt China’s aggression, New Delhi should prosecute its own policy of selectively providing strategic technologies to an assertive Hanoi, which has time and again shown the mettle to stand up to China. India is aware of China’s responsibility for equipping Pakistan with nuclear missiles, and concerned about Islamabad’s role in using the North Korean nuclear tests to improve its “boosted fission” weapon- and, eventually, hydrogen bomb-making skills. The time for payback is nigh. A platform exists for the transfer of expertise to Vietnam – the 2003 India-Vietnam civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. It was augmented in 2009 by the defence cooperation accord and in May 2015 further enhanced by the ‘joint vision statement’ envisaging a comprehensive upgrade in relations. In line with its new “Act East” thrust of policy, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government has finally agreed to sell to Vietnam the indigenous Brahmos supersonic cruise missile. It is another matter that New Delhi is yet to dispatch them to Hanoi.

It is possible that Washington’s reluctance to call out China in a more forceful manner on nuclear proliferation is inducing caution in New Delhi. The other factor that may be acting as a dampener on an aggressive Indian policy towards Southeast Asian countries inclined to stand up to Chinese bullying is the potentially adverse reaction of the US, which the Modi regime is particularly mindful of. Will Washington react with its usual mindless nonproliferation zeal, or look the other way, which it has repeatedly done in the past? In this respect, notwithstanding the US government’s consistent opposition to India resuming nuclear tests and acquiring credible thermonuclear armaments to achieve at least notional strategic parity with China, the fact is such a development serves US strategic interests. The chances, however, are Washington will stay with its longstanding “Kissingerian” policy of currying favour with Beijing in the hope of constituting a global G-2 order with the US and China at the apex, permitting the CPUS triad to covertly “balance” a nuclear India with a nuclear Pakistan in South Asia, and to bind a worried Japan and North Korea more closely to America by keeping alive the bogey of a crazy nuclearised North Korea.

Japan and South Korea may ultimately be restrained by Washington. But a determined and resolute India that knows its interests and is intent on equalising the strategic correlation of forces in Asia cannot be stopped from strategically undermining by any and all means the security system China has over the years so ruthlessly installed to further its goal of domination. The policy of empowering its Asian friends may win New Delhi some genuine respect in the world. Then again, Beijing is, perhaps, banking on the proven timidity and diffidence of Indian rulers to escape the actions of a justly vengeful India (and an Asian counter-triad). The question, therefore, is whether the Indian government will be disruptive for a change in order to permanently reduce China strategically – a big enough goal for New Delhi to temper its risk-averse habit of mind.

Bharat Karnad is senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and author, among other books, of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, India’s Nuclear Policy and, most recently, of Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet).