Mark HibbsChinese Help on Khushab-4?

It isn’t every day that I read a New York Times editorial and start making phone calls but it did happen this weekend right after I arrived in the Nation’s Capital for a stay here and a week of hard work here.

On Sunday, a Times leader writer had this to say about Pakistan’s plutonium production program.

What set me on my ear in the Times editorial was the bit in graf two asserting that the new weapons reactor in Pakistan was being built “with China’s help.”

Now, we know at least since I was in Beijing last spring that China has been making very concrete plans with Pakistan to start building a third and a fourth power reactor at the Chashma site.

Since at least last November some rumors have been spreading in Vienna and elsewhere that China is pulling back from this project, which most members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group probably surmise would violate NSG guidelines barring transfers of trigger list times to Pakistan.

These rumors notwithstanding, I have my very good reasons for concluding that this project is moving forward as planned. Also, China has already told the IAEA that it plans to do this, and, significantly, that the new reactors at Chashma, like the two existing Chinese-vintage units there, would be put under IAEA safeguards.

But that’s a different kettle of fish than Pakistan’s fourth, unsafeguarded plutonium production reactor which is now under construction at the Khushab site, and which was the point of departure for the Times editorial.  [The new site was first disclosed by ISIS, which has released an interesting report on the subject. — JGL]

Is China in fact providing assistance to Pakistan to make more plutonium at Khushab?

The new Khushab reactor, I was reassured this morning from some people who know all about that project up close and personal, is not being set up with any Chinese assistance.

But what if the Times in this instance hadn’t gotten that detail wrong, and China in fact were helping Pakistan with that plutonium reactor?

The answer lies in the minutiae of the US-China bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement.

To begin with, according to Mark Holt and Shirley Kan at CRS, Bill Clinton in 1998, after years of fretting about China’s assistance to undeclared nuclear activities in places like Iran and Pakistan, in order to bring the agreement into force, had provided a presidential certification, originally called for under P.L. 101-246—a measure passed after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989—that China “has provided clear and unequivocal assurances to the United States that it is not assisting and will not assist any non-nuclear weapons state, either directly or indirectly, in acquiring nuclear explosive devices or the materials and components for such devices.”

Okay. But if the US now were to find out that China were helping Pakistan build a weapons reactor? I think it would be a very safe bet that Hilary Clinton would be on the hotline with her Chinese counterparts to put that fire out as soon as it started, because if she didn’t, if we believe what US nuclear companies told Dick Cheney just a few years ago, at stake would be a nuclear industry market worth $50-billion. Should you believe that number? Well, it’s been a hotly debated point since the late 1990s, but I can assure you that executives at one very big US player in the Chinese nuclear program aren’t at this point even sure themselves whether to take a long-term position in that market or whether to wrap up their current projects and then cut bait.

In any case, should news of any Chinese work at Khushab get leaked, it would be fair to say there would be a diplomatic and economic meltdown, because the US-China nuclear agreement has language in it which refers to Section 129 of the Atomic Energy Act. And that clearly provides for a cutoff of US nuclear cooperation if a country

“assisted, encouraged, or induced any non-nuclear-weapon state to engage in activities involving source or special nuclear material and having direct significance for the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear explosive devices, and has failed to take steps which, in the President’s judgment, represent sufficient progress toward terminating such assistance, encouragement, or inducement…”


  1. FSB (History)

    excellent article as usual.

    Re. the last paragraph, what assistance to China would the US cutoff, per Section 129 of the Atomic Energy Act?

    Further, let’s remember that there are political dimensions to these legal minutiae. e.g. China are our creditors. Would you start rattling the cage with your landlord?

    Second, in other circumstances, the US has been content to look the other way — for instance, the US Arms Export Control Act forbids the sale of US military hardware if a country has committed humans rights abuses with it. It is abundantly clear (viz. Goldstone Report) that the Israeli Defense Forces did carry out such abuses with US-supplied arms, yet we go on selling arms to Israel.

    Lastly, the ridiculous politicization of the NSG and NPT contortions needed to bring about the US-India deal absolves China of any taint, by default almost.

  2. mark (History)

    FSB and Dan, you are right about the politics. That’s why I think that if the US got an inkling that there was anything fishy going on at K-4–like some high-def aerial photos showing Chinese crawling all over the reactor site–there would be a lot of very heavy lifting at the State Department to make sure that it was stopped right away. Same thing happens at the IAEA in Vienna: as soon as there is a warning flashing that some state somewhere is doing something it isn’t supposed to be doing (for example a case I explored in Taiwan back in the 1990s when Taiwan was doing some thorium experiments that weren’t reported)someone at the top is called up, a meeting is arranged, they discuss it, and the activity is “terminated.” (In the above-mentioned Taiwan case, first there was a meeting where the head of IAEA safeguards told the USG what they knew, and then there was a meeting between the State Department and its counterparts on Taiwan to “terminate” the activity, with DOE then following up to make sure it was history.) When that’s all taken care of, all parties concerned can instruct their media minders to tell the press “What are you talking about? We don’t know about any violations of anything.” If they are lucky. (In South Korea a few years ago they weren’t so lucky, the dirt on the uranium enrichment experiments leaked, there was a big dust-up). The above implies that all this would happen behind the scenes with the Chinese long before anything got leaked. If that were to happen, then bets are off–if it goes public, then the war in Congress over our entire China policy can commence.

    I’ll get back to you about your question on what gets terminated under section B of 129.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    I ask out of ignorance, but what assistance might Pakistan need from China at this point? They’ve already built and operated three plutonium production reactors — haven’t they got the hang of it by now?

  4. mark (History)

    Allen, I think the short answer is yes. This is reactor number 4 in this series. I am reasonably certain that the Chinese helped Pakistan build Khushab-1. But that was in the 1980s and maybe into the 1990s. Thereafter, Pakistan could do it pretty much by themselves.

  5. archjr (History)

    Mark: 129 requires, basically, the suspension of all nuclear assistance, as does the China sanctions bill you reference. This, most pertinently, would mean no 57(b) authorizations for information relevant to the production of fissile material. By one interpretation, that means every jot of information. You know better than I what commercial interaction there is between U.S. companies and China as they expand their nuclear electricity production.

    As a bit of history, I remember the post-Tiananmen sanctions bill [which I helped write during a frenzy of the Congress needing to do anything to show how pissed off we were (not that there is anything about the massacre to defend)] was a kitchen sink of sanctions. The nuclear issue arose because of the parlous state of the U.S.-China agreement for nuclear cooperation, and Sy Hersh’s article around the same time (in the NYT, I believe), that alleged Chinese provision of HEU bomb designs to Pakistan, that were allegedly the result of the CIA’s conclusion that the Pakistani bomb design they had snatched was very close to what the technical folks determined was the second Chinese nuclear test (I think in 1965, an HEU bomb). Anyway, these are all details; maybe I’ll expand on them at a later date. Unless they threaten to kill me.

    Anyway, Hersh’s article led the U.S. into a very tentative relationship on nuclear issues with China, as a result of the sanctions laid out in the NNPA and the China agreement. Commercial interests were omnipresent. We should remember that the China nuclear agreement was submitted to the Congress by the Reagan Administration in 1985, and implemented in 1998 by Pres. Clinton pressing the resolution through the Hill. The U.S.-China summit in January 1984, in the run-up, seemed to be bereft of anything of political significance, so Reagan’s political advisers decided to make the nuclear agreement the centerpiece. But because there were serious concerns about Chinese assistance to Pakistan in Washington, it was decided that Reagan and Zhao would “witness” the initializing of the agreement. So Reagan and Zhao sat there and watched John Herrington and his Chinese counterpart initial any one of the hundreds of pages of the agreement. It was hailed as a major accomplishment of the summit, but not formally signed for another year or so.

    I was in China in 1985 with a Congressional delegation. In a meeting with Vice-Premier Li Peng, the timing of which was confirmed in just enough time to drive from our hotel to the Great Hall of the People, Li stated that henceforth the PRC would conform with all nonproliferation norms, particularly those relevant to safeguards applied by the IAEA. This was good news, particularly for Democrats (I worked for the Chairman). But there was a great deal of unease. Steve Solarz (R.I.P.) figured out that an approval resolution, rather than the failure of a disapproval resolution (about which more anytime), with conditions was the best way to hedge the bet and exert Congressional influence. So the agreement was approved with conditions that China would not further violate nonproliferation norms. It speaks volumes that it took 13 years to approve the agreement based on a Presidential certification. This is the way things are done.

    There is no more logical strategic partnership in the world than China and Pakistan, and (@FSB), it has nothing to do with the United States. @FSB: I don’t mean to bug you, but at some point the 1967 NPT is somehow not particularly relevant right now, nor is the IAEA. I regret this, in more ways than you can imagine, and I agree with much of what you say.

    • FSB (History)

      MWG says “..but at some point the 1967 NPT is somehow not particularly relevant right now, nor is the IAEA. I regret this, in more ways than you can imagine, and I agree with much of what you say.”

      Great — thank you.

      It would be good if someone told that to the UNSC before it starts slapping sanctions on countries.

      Amano, in reference to Iran just said that he saw no smoking gun in Iran, “just concerns”.

      Thin evidence to base sanctions on.

    • FSB (History)

      sorry I mean archjr not MWG


  6. Jodi (History)

    Mark –

    As always, an incisive examination of the press getting it wrong. BUT, I am skeptical on this one. Dare I say that China is prepared to abrogate its commitments to the U.S. in order to help Pakistan? It is possible. Could your contacts be blowing smoke? Also possible. I doubt the Chinese would come out and say that they are overtly breaking their commitment under the bilateral agreement. I wonder if the NYT just pulled this one out of thin air or if there is something underlying this piece.

    Cheers, Jodi

  7. rwendland (History)

    Just within the nuclear power plant arena this makes no commercial sense for the U.S. or China.

    China is building the first four Westinghouse AP1000s, completions due 2013 to 2015. This is the U.S. entry into Generation III reactors. Any extensive nuclear freeze now would delay (if not kill} U.S. entry into Generation III. {This may well be the “very big US player in China” you allude to – but the current significance for the U.S. is far more than loosing this large sale.)

    China is developing the ACPR-1000 to give China its first exportable design (by replacement of French IPR components in the base CPR-1000 design). China has high hopes of exporting this 2015+ onward.

    To deliberately risk this with a small business transaction in Pakistan simply makes no sense. Maybe something slipped past developing Chinese export controls. Maybe some non-controlled basic Chinese components were used – Chinese components are used in near everything these days. But hard to believe this would be intended.

    • mark (History)

      Rwendland, I fully agree China has a lot at stake and that that argues strongly against a decision by China to challenge the US by aiding the weapons plutonium project in Khushab. I also agree with Allen’s point above that, during the 20 years since China aided Pakistan in setting up Khushab-1, Pakistan has learned how to replicate this reactor. There is a certain, perhaps circumscribed issue involving the failure–intentional or not–of Chinese authorities to enforce its nuclear export controls. There is quite a list of strategic materials and other goods which have gotten through to Iran and North Korea. None of this–while it could be considered aid to a foreign nuclear weapons program in the sense of AEA Section 129–has provoked any actions by the USG to suspend nuclear cooperation with China. See above previous comments by FSB concerning how politically flexible US legislation can be in other cases. As I said you can be sure that if there were anything trickling into Khushab from Chinese entitites, there would be a high-level bilateral pow-wow to “terminate” it well in advance of any USG action to suspend. That was the case when Taiwan transgressed in the past. Even more that would be the case if there were Chinese issues under Section 129. The White House would be sure it was handled this way: It would not want to give anyone in Congress any ammunition to put the Executive Branch’s entire China trade policy on the rack.

    • Ian (History)

      Aside from this case, which may or may not be real, Mark’s comment “There is quite a list of strategic materials and other goods which have gotten through to Iran and North Korea. None of this–while it could be considered aid to a foreign nuclear weapons program in the sense of AEA Section 129–has provoked any actions by the USG to suspend nuclear cooperation with China.” sharpens the underlying point about balancing nonproliferation with other objectives.

      I think it is the case that 75 per cent of new build in the power reactor sector in the past 5 years has been in China. To say that right now China is the nuclear renaissance is probably only a modest exaggeration.

      In those circumstances policies based on technology denial or threats of technology denial must look pretty hollow in Beijing. Isn’t viewing this through the lens of Section 129 of the Atomic Energy Act just another example of a failure to assimilate current realities?

    • FSB (History)

      just for the record, I am not alone in saying that politics enter into this business.

      Not related to the China issue, but even 110+ nations of the UN have said that the supposedly unbiased IAEA blows smoke:

      “In a strongly-worded statement, representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have supported Iran’s position on the contentious issue of IAEA inspectors and have also expressed concern that the most recent IAEA report on Iran has “departed from standard verification language”.

      “NAM notes with concern, the possible implications of the continued departure from standard verification language in the summary of the report of the director general [Yukio Amano],” the statement said. The statement was read during the IAEA board of governors meeting on behalf of over 100 NAM member states.”

      Amano himself is very much biased:

      And there is no evidence for a current nuclear weapons program in Iran — merely a lack of some (disputed) cooperation.

      See eg:

      Further the UN Sanctions may not be legal:

      Apologies — I do not mean to hijack the China discussion but want to emphasize that reality is malleable when it comes to decision making even with supposedly unbiased international bodies.

      This is especially so when the US enters the picture. e.g. I just heard that the US wants the International Court of Justice to hear the case about the CIA spy in Pakistan. It would nice, surely, if the US was a member of the ICJ before making such a suggestion.

  8. Ben (History)

    Great article as ever Mark. While it seems very unlikely that K-4 is being assisted by China (it seems to be a copy and no different then K-2 and K-3 anyway), if it were the case, I wonder if China would justify it as being ‘grandfathered in’ under the wide ranging 1986 Sino-Pak nuclear agreement. Some commentators now retroactively claim the agreement allows for the export of multiple civilian power reactors (not just at Chashma), and an unspecified number of ‘research’ reactors. Has anyone got the text of the original agreement or was it handily never released?

    In terms of Sino-Pak relations, I’m always struck by the caustic remark given by a chinese diplomat to an unnamed American official.

    ‘When a US delegate once confronted a Chinese diplomat about Beijing’s uncompromising support for Pakistan, the Chinese reportedly responded with a heavily-loaded sarcastic remark: “Pakistan is our Israel”.’

    It wouldn’t suprise me if the US didn’t object even if cooperation was going on, they seem to have acquiesced to it. As you mentioned earlier, the nuclear trade deals are huge between the US and China so it probably makes little sense in foreign policy terms at this late stage to object.

    Christine Fair makes a strong case that it’s in the US national interest to cut a deal with Pakistan anyway, after all, it’s a country of 170 million with pressing power needs. And they already have the bomb, and the possibilities of a nuclear rollback for civilian assistance look slight.

    On the new reactors, I remember reading David Sanger in the NYT quoting an intelligence offical who said that the new K-2 reactor “…could be a replacement” for the first one.

    A quick look on google earth shows that steam hasn’t been seen from the cooling towers of the original since 2003, so maybe he’s right.

  9. RV (History)

    Nice hotel, Mark!

  10. mohan malik (History)

    This is not the first time China is going to violate its bilateral and multilateral treaty commitments to help Pakistan and others. There is part of a pattern … therte is a long history of the Beijing-Islamabad-Pyongyang nuclear and missile axis. Nor are the Chinese going to listen to “a superpower in decline” any more. As they would say, this is not the 1980s or the 1990s when they were weak and the world was unipolar. In 20 years time, the Chinese hope to emerge as the largest nuclear power in the world (in terms of the number of nuclear reactors) and will seek to re-set the rules of nuclear commerce. Paraphrasing the 1950s slogan: “nuclear weapons in the hands of China’s firends and allies promote peace, while those in the hands of America’s friends and allies are tools of aggression and promote war.” However, as in the past, I expect the Chinese FM spokesperson to deny it all. The more things change…

  11. Magoo (History)

    Mark, Thank you for an exceptional analysis, which has generated equally outstanding responses. For the first time (on record) we are seeing the Sino-US nuclear relationship and the dynamics of nuclear non-proliferation strategies being affected by the phenomenon of ‘globalisation’, yet another core strategy propagated by the Western powers. The latter has created exceptional interdependencies among nations that have begun to impinge on the ability of sovereign states to act autonomously in developing their individual national interests without compromise. The ensuing fissure in formulating strategies will need some astute and adroit responses. Both Washington and Beijing will be constrained to make concessions that will have a major bearing on the global security mosaic – possibly with profound results.

    • FSB (History)

      I think what recent events really show is that international treaties are useful to the big powers when it is in their interest — and when not, they feel free to ignore them or subvert them politically.

      In fact, as I point out above — in the US we can even scoff at our own laws (e.g. the Arms Export Control Act), when powerful enough lobbies (e.g. AIPAC) want our morally malleable congressman to do so.

      As wikileaks has shown, Mr. Amano has a pro-US bias.

      And as the NAM has pointed out >110 nations think Amano is blowing smoke.

      Even Amano recently admitted that he had no “smoking gun” in Iran just “concerns”. Great. He should find another job.

      So, basically, rules apply to the weak (and are even misused) and the strong are free to do what they want.

  12. mark (History)

    Thanks to all for the comments which came in over the last 36 hours while I was in NY for a meeting. I am back in DC now but have to catch a plane for Frankfurt this afternoon and I will respond on Saturday after I return to Europe.

  13. FSB (History)

    As a further example of how our own government proliferates:

    “The man who knew too much — He was the CIA’s expert on Pakistan’s nuclear secrets, but Rich Barlow was thrown out and disgraced when he blew the whistle on a US cover-up. Now he’s to have his day in court. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark report.”

  14. FSB (History)

    BTW, The view from Pakistan is interesting:

    • Kay Zee (History)

      The article is interesting indeed. It turns the oft-repeated assertion about the fastest growing Pakistani arsenal and brings India at the top. Why isn’t anyone talking about it?

  15. Kay Zee (History)

    The article is interesting indeed. It gives a new twist – showing that India has a larger arsenal and its growing at a faster rate. Why isn’t anyone talking about it?

  16. G.Balachandran (History)

    I wonder if any of the armscontrolwonkers can help me with this: How does Pakistan propose to fuel all these reactors? It needs fuel for KANUPP, K-1, K-2, K-3 and now K-4. According to to the IAEA/OECD Red Book Pakistan produces about 40 MT of Natural Uranium. Of this about 8-9 Mt will be needed for Kanupp. Do wonkers believe that the remaining will be enough to fuel all the other reactors, excluding the reactor at Chasma, with about 30 MT of U plus feed the enrichment plant at Kahuta as well?