- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Maybe China is starting to get it. After years of supplying Pakistan with nuclear weapons technology, Beijing has sent Islamabad a mixed message about future cooperation. While China has far to go to become the responsible country we hope for, the specter of nuclear proliferation finally may have given China some pause.

Pakistan’s standing as a top proliferator of nuclear weapons technology is beyond dispute. The A.Q. Khan network did incalculable damage to world security, selling advanced nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, Libya and possibly others. Khan ran what Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called the “Wal-Mart of private sector proliferation.” Khan landed on the cover of Time magazine last year, tagged as the “Merchant of Menace.”

While Khan himself appears to have been put out of business by President Pervez Musharraf’s government, his network is another question. At a May hearing I held, several witnesses thought that its closure was wishful thinking. It doesn’t help in figuring this out that Pakistan has denied the U.S. and other non-Pakistani authorities direct access to Khan. He remains under house arrest, supposedly incommunicado. Many believe Pakistani officials want Khan cloistered to protect their proliferation activities — past and maybe future. Unlike neighboring India, Pakistan has been a most irresponsible nuclear power.

Pakistan’s proliferation record aside, its nuclear weapons are a great concern. Much of Pakistani society, unfortunately, is becoming radicalized. Support for the Taliban, already considerable, is growing, and many Pakistani schools teach militant Islam. President Musharraf has checked extremism in some ways, but Pakistan may be in for an unstable and radical future. The possibility of its nuclear arsenal falling into extremist hands must be factored.

Many Pakistanis revere Khan as the father of the Pakistani bomb. While Khan has technological abilities for sure, his genius appears most evident in his global acquisitions and logistics network. Far from being indigenously developed, as Pakistani national lore has it, Khan’s weapons program relied on foreign technology, bought, stolen or otherwise acquired. This includes some 5,000 ring magnets needed to enrich uranium that China provided in the 1990s. The Pakistani nuclear weapons program would be far less advanced without Chinese backing. The same is true for Iran and North Korea.

This history had many fearing the worst when Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Pakistan last month. The agenda was signing a free trade deal. And nuclear cooperation. While press accounts of China-Pakistan diplomacy must be treated with caution, and back room deals may have been made, the Musharraf government appeared disappointed that China stopped short of pledging to build new nuclear reactors in Pakistan.

Beijing has been relatively forceful against North Korea since its October nuclear test. While not doing nearly enough to pressure its client into abandoning its nuclear weapons program, China has made some unprecedented moves. It agreed to Security Council sanctions against North Korea — a tool it historically rejects using against any country — and has joined the U.S. in cracking down on Pyongyang’s counterfeiting and money laundering. While the jury is still out on how helpful China will be, we are in a better position with its new pressure than before.

The world is at a nuclear precipice. The number of nuclear weapon states, long held in relative check, may soon increase. Khan’s visits included Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan. The rise of radical Islam makes nuclear weapons proliferation all the more ominous. Osama bin Laden has called obtaining a nuclear weapon a “religious obligation.” Other terrorists are seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Does China want to contain or profit from the spread of nuclear weapons? Can Beijing move beyond old alliances and commercial interests and view North Korea and Iran as frightening places if they obtain nuclear weapons? Will China still aid Pakistan’s nuclear program, knowing of the country’s proliferation record and instability?

We might be seeing a recalibration of Chinese interests. A prominent academic in Beijing recently attacked China’s North Korea policy, saying “It was a stupid policy for China to view North Korea’s nuclear weapons as potential leverage against the U.S.” He added, “Instead, the nuclear weapons will be mainly aimed at China.” If it wants, China has strong cards to play against Pakistan, Iran and especially North Korea.

The U.S. must pressure China. But our greatest hope is that China itself will come to realize what Americans realized years ago: that a world awash in nuclear weapons is a very unsafe world. There isn’t much time to wait.

Ed Royce, California Republican, is chairman of the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation.

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