North Korea is a problem, but China and Pakistan are just as harmful
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In recent weeks, all eyes have been on a looming showdown between the United States and North Korea. But the Korean peninsula is not Asia’s sole nuclear hotspot, nor is the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship the region’s only malign axis. China’s relationship with Pakistan has done, and continues to do, real harm to U.S. interests.

If South Asia is the world’s most unstable nuclear flashpoint, China bears significant responsibility for making it so. Not only did China’s first nuclear weapon test, in 1964, help set off a chain reaction of proliferation across Asia, but China directly abetted that proliferation.


According to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Islamabad’s nuclear program, China sent a planeload of enriched uranium — accompanied with blueprints for a nuclear device — to Pakistan in 1982. Khan may have later passed design information to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.


In 1998, the Chinese leadership took negligible action to prevent Pakistan’s first test and may have even provided a tacit go-ahead. Beijing, in fact, may have tested a Pakistani weapon on Chinese soil as far back as 1990.

Pakistan now has an arsenal of at least 100 warheads. Troublingly, it ranks No. 22 out of 24 countries rated by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) on the security of their nuclear materials. NTI reports that the low rating is due to “increasing quantities of nuclear materials, political instability and corruption, and the presence of groups interested in and capable of illicitly acquiring nuclear materials.”

Such an acquisition would be a nightmare for American security planners. Severe civil strife or regime instability could even lead to direct American military intervention in Pakistan to secure nuclear sites, a scenario fraught with danger. Beyond this lurid history, the China-Pakistan axis today contributes to a balance of power both in South Asia and across the Asia-Pacific that is unfavorable to American interests.

Both George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states Ford taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing MORE sought tighter economic and security ties with India, in the hopes that a closer relationship would enhance conventional deterrence vis-à-vis China. They likewise hoped to see Delhi make greater contributions to security in East Asia.

There have been notable advances in this regard, but China and Pakistan threaten to tie down India in South Asia. Close China-Pakistan military ties ensure that Islamabad remains a threat on India’s northwestern border. The relationship, moreover, forces Delhi to fret about the possibility that its rivals might conspire regarding their territorial disputes with India.

Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad has also facilitated Chinese power projection into the Indian Ocean region. In May 2016, a Chinese nuclear attack submarine was spotted pier-side in Karachi, and Chinese warships now have apparent use of Gwadar port, which China has developed over the last decade. Chinese naval vessels have reportedly been escorting Chinese commercial ships in and out of Gwadar since November 2016. With China’s ongoing counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and the Chinese military’s construction of a base in Djibouti, a more robust Chinese naval presence in the Arabian Sea is in the offing.

Ostensibly, China has pursued such a course in order to defend far flung sea lines of communication. But its navy will also be in position to threaten those same sea lines, thus posing a security threat to Asia’s major trading economies — namely, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. In the opening stages of any conflict with Delhi, moreover, Chinese forces would be poised to present a threat to India from the west, a novel prospect for an Indian military that has long prepared for an air and land war with China to be fought in and over the Himalayas.

The China-Pakistan relationship raises human rights concerns as well. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a string of infrastructure projects  inaugurated in 2014, may spur economic development along the route, which stretches from Kashgar, in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang, through portions of Kashmir claimed by India, to Gwadar, Pakistan. But as the World Uyghur Congress has noted, the CPEC might lead to a greater influx of Han Chinese to Xinjiang and, absent a relaxation of apartheid-like conditions for Muslims there, greater ethnic tensions.

Indeed, given the Chinese Communist Party’s general preference for the iron fist over the velvet glove in the so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, more oppressive security measures are likely. Pakistan is not unsympathetic to the plight of China’s Uyghurs, but Beijing has effectively neutralized Islamabad as a potential defender of Chinese Muslims’ rights. Indeed, Pakistan has, from time to time in recent years, extradited Uyghurs — even children — to China, where they face certain punishment.

Greater oppression in Xinjiang would be a tragedy in its own right and contrary to America’s interest in advancing the cause of freedom in Asia. Beyond the human tragedy, however, Chinese practices in Xinjiang have now become a security concern for the United States. Chinese repression of the Uyghur community is an important factor leading to greater radicalization within that community, and there are believed to be approximately 100 Uyghur militants fighting with ISIS in the Middle East. What happens in Xinjiang doesn’t stay in Xinjiang.

The United States has long looked at Pakistan as an important partner in the Afghanistan war and with good reason. But Islamabad has also been a crucial partner in Beijing’s efforts to complicate India’s security environment and to project Chinese power into the Indian Ocean region. U.S. national interests suffer as a result.

Michael Mazza is research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.