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Pakistan’s FMCT woes

August 07, 2011

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AS if US-Pakistan relations were not strained enough, news is circulating that the US plans to pressurise Pakistan to sign the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) at September’s UN General Assembly.

Such an effort, more than unilateral raids and CIA security contractors, will incense the Pakistani establishment because it directly targets Pakistan’s ability to balance the security equation with India. Pakistan has long boycotted FMCT negotiations, arguing that it has to proceed with fissile material production to address the conventional military imbalance with India.

Since 2005, Pakistan has cited the US-India civil nuclear deal as the main reason for boycotting the FMCT, arguing that Pakistan would cap fissile material production under the treaty, but India could continue production in a civilian context and divert material for weapons production against Pakistan if necessary.

A renewed push to finalise the FMCT would further complicate Pakistan’s nuclear stance for, despite international media frenzy, Pakistan’s nuclear strategy has concerns beyond the safety of nuclear assets and the threat of infiltration of the armed forces.

The first issue is that of sustainability. Pakistan pursues a strategy of minimum credible deterrence, and expects to cease weapons production when perceived needs are met. It seems unlikely that this will ever happen given that India has emerged as the largest arms buyer, receiving nine per cent of all international arms transfers between 2006 and 2010. How Pakistan plans to afford infinite nuclear production is unclear as most of the country’s citizens are already eating grass, if that.

The programme’s poor reputation is also a hindrance. Pakistan’s concerns about the US-India civilian cooperation deal under the FMCT have some validity. Moreover, in light of the escalating energy crisis, Pakistan stands to gain from nuclear energy projects. But the country’s poor proliferation record and its continuing refusal to give the international community access to Dr A.Q. Khan mean that Pakistan will never be the recipient of a civilian deal with the US. The famed deal with China, too, will come under intense pressure from the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Pakistan’s nuclear strategising is also falling victim to souring US-Pakistan relations. Islamabad’s resistance to the FMCT is partially driven by the paranoia that Washington is trying to undermine Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities as part of its overall ‘tilt to India’. The global picture is more complicated than that, and it ill serves Pakistan to ignore that fact.

The dream of a nuclear-free world is the cornerstone of US President Barack Obama’s personal legacy, one that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. He stimulated disarmament by ceasing funding for America’s “reliable, replacement” warheads and signing the New START treaty with Russia, which reduced the nations’ nuclear arsenals to the lowest levels in five decades. Finalising the FMCT is the next point on Obama’s agenda, and he will be hard-pressed to let Pakistan stand in its way.

Rather than persist with the boycott, Pakistan should ask the international community for assurances on India’s fissile material production and press for a civilian nuclear deal.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the US-Pakistan nuclear dynamic has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. No doubt, the US has long-held concerns about a nuclear Pakistan, as confirmed recently by the declassification of American memos from the 1970s. But its concerns have been inconsistent: the US turned a blind eye while Pakistan pursued weapons in the 1980s, privileging cooperation in the Afghan ‘jihad’. Similarly, after 2001, the US worked with Pakistan to secure its weapons rather than pressurise Islamabad to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. President Obama’s 2010 nuclear posture review didn’t even mention Pakistan.

Despite this history, Pakistan obsessively fears US ploys to seize its 100-plus nuclear weapons. In a perverse feedback loop, these ploys are becoming reality in response to recent Pakistani nuclear initiatives, including escalated weapons production and the development of tactical weapons such as the Nasr (Hatf-9), which is a short-range, surface-to-surface ballistic missile system designed for battlefield use and therefore more vulnerable to misuse.

As ties with the US worsen, Pakistan turns to China. Recent reports suggest, however, that China too is seeking to finalise the FMCT. The question now is whether Beijing will join hands with Washington to pressurise Islamabad to sign the treaty.

Pakistan needs China to be on board with its nuclear programme, which it largely is in order to keep a check on nuclear India.

Beijing is also hesitant to finalise the FMCT because that would hamper China’s ability to compete with the US and Russia in terms of weapons production. It is convenient for Beijing to let Islamabad appear as the spoiler to the FMCT while avoiding having to sign the treaty itself. After all, it is cheaper for China to build offensive weapons rather than defensive systems.

Support or silence from China on the FMCT issue should not be seen in Pakistan as approval for its nuclear programme. We cannot forget that Pakistan is the lowest in the pecking order in terms of global nuclear strategising: China produces fissile material to balance the US and Russia; India responds to Chinese production; and Pakistan reacts to India. But Pakistan cannot pursue an impossible target of weapons production just because superpowers must compete.

Sadly, these are issues that cannot be thoughtfully debated within Pakistan because the Bomb has become the linchpin of our nationalist fervour. Lack of education about the fallout of a nuclear attack and the cost of the programme lead too many Pakistanis to favour unbridled weapons production. As such, they are faced with a worst-case scenario far more devastating than perceived US designs on Pakistani nukes.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com