India’s inclusion in Tier 1 of the US' STA List: Snub to China and concern for Pakistan
The United States (US) through a federal notification issued on 3 August 2018, has moved India into Tier 1 of the US Department of Commerce’s Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1) license exception. India was, till the notification, listed in the STA-2 category along with Albania, Hong Kong, Israel, Malta, Singapore, South Africa and Taiwan. STA-1 status, which has so far been reserved by the US for its NATO allies as well as for Japan and South Korea with which it has defense treaties, has been extended to India as a notable exception. It will enable India to receive sensitive high-end US technology and military items without the US exporter having to go through the commerce department for a license in each case, as was hitherto required. Pakistan, unsurprisingly and rather dim-wittedly, reacted by criticizing the US decision as being discriminatory and exceptional. For China, Pakistan’s benefactor that strives to shield the latter in even the most indefensible of situations, the US decision has come as an uncomfortable slap on the wrist.
The STA-1 notification follows up the US decision of 2016, to recognize India as a Major Defense Partner (MDP). The two countries in the India-US Joint Statement of 7 June 2016 titled "The United States and India: Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century" had stated: "Noting that the US-India defense relationship can be an anchor of stability and given the increasingly strengthened cooperation in defense, the US hereby recognizes India as a Major Defense Partner". This decision had been accompanied by an understanding that India would receive license-free access to a wide range of US high-end and dual-use technologies, for which necessary steps, including passage of the required legislation, would be undertaken by the US. India, meanwhile, agreed to take steps to advance its export control regime. A year and a half of negotiations and preparations ensued. During this period strong US support and its own credentials as a responsible member of the international community gained India admission to three of the four multilateral export control regimes, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) on 27 June 2016, the Wassenaar Arrangement on 7 December 2017, and the Australia Group on 19 January 2018.
India’s inability to gain membership of the fourth export control regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), despite overwhelming support from other members of the grouping and an active push by the US, has been on account of China’s repeated efforts to block it and simultaneously include the country most notorious for global proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology - Pakistan - into the NSG. Frustrated at the repeated barriers that China was putting in the way of India’s NSG membership, India had conveyed to the US that China was effectively putting on hold India-US cooperation on co-production of defense equipment and transfer of high-end technology.
The US had, prior to India’s inclusion, placed only those countries in the STA-1 list that were members of all the four export control regimes. Inclusion of India in the list, despite its lack of formal membership of the NSG, is a clear message from the US to China that as far as the US was concerned, it unambiguously acknowledged that in effect India adhered to the export control regimes of the NSG. It was also an expression of disdain and exasperation at China’s unprincipled and obdurate stance. Further, the US notification of 3 August literally made India a joint stakeholder to the US vision of an export control framework by stating that the two countries would cooperate to strengthen global non-proliferation and transform bilateral export control cooperation to recognize the full potential of the global strategic partnership between them. It also underlined the two countries' intention to broaden cooperation in civil space, defense, and other high-technology sectors as well as the US’ commitment to realign India in US export control regulations and support India's membership in the four multilateral export control regimes. Hence, the step not only made transfer of technology easier but also reflected the faith that the US has vested in India, which it considers a reliable partner.
For China, the US move to elevate India to STA-1 is not merely a snub to its unreasonable support to Pakistan on the NSG membership issue, but also has wider implications. China is well aware that India and the US, along with other democracies such as Japan and Australia, share an interest in countering China’s expansionist economic and military policies. Already a serious arms supplier to India with over $15 billion worth of weapons sold to it over the past decade, the US expects its India catalogue to expand exponentially in the near future. Influx of modern, high-end US weaponry and equipment into India can only add to China’s discomfiture, more so as China itself is well-nigh a pariah on the international arms market and is reported to rely on theft and reverse-engineering for most of its military equipment needs.
China’s strong backing of Pakistan’s bid for membership of the NSG would be baffling if the finer details of the latter’s extensive proliferation network were not known. The New York Times carried an article on 2 October 2017 on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme in which it revealed that “On Oct. 23, 1966, China conducted a nuclear test with a device that was flown on a Dongfeng missile. It produced a yield of 12 kilotons of equivalent TNT — a little less than what destroyed Hiroshima. Like the Hiroshima bomb, its fissile material was highly enriched uranium. However, its design was different. It used implosion to assemble the critical mass by compressing the sphere that was made of the fissile material... The precise design of this Chinese weapon is known because in late 2001 or early 2002, it was sold by the Pakistani proliferator A.Q Khan to the Libyans, who subsequently turned it over to the CIA. The question is: Did Mr. Khan also sell it to Iran? The likelihood is that he did”. The question pertinent to this commentary does not relate to Iran though, but rather to China – how did the design of the Chinese nuclear weapon reach Abdul Qadeer Khan in Pakistan in the first place? The article further disclosed that “By 1989 Mr. Khan was running what was essentially a supermarket for nuclear technology. It was a moneymaking operation, done certainly with the knowledge of the Pakistan government. (When in the mid-1990s Mr. Khan began trading with the North Koreans, providing centrifuges for rockets, the goods were carried in Pakistani military aircraft)”.
Pakistan has been by far the biggest proliferator of nuclear weapons and technology the world has ever known. The self-designated father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, A.Q. Khan, was charged with stealing a blueprint for uranium centrifuges that transform uranium into weapons-grade nuclear fuel from the Netherlands while working for Anglo-Dutch-German nuclear engineering consortium URENCO, and taking it to Pakistan in 1976. From then on till his eventual downfall in 2004, A.Q. Khan was one of the key figures in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. In the face of mounting evidence and international pressure, A.Q. Khan on 4 February 2004 confessed on live television that he had illegally proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea over the course of decades. An editorial in The New York Times on 6 September 2009 described the A.Q. Khan saga aptly: “Abdul Qadeer Khan has a special place in the pantheon of international outlaws. In 2004, he confessed that over a 15-year period he provided some of the world’s most nefarious and dangerous governments — Iran, North Korea and Libya — with the designs and technology to produce the fuel for nuclear weapons. The Pakistani metallurgist deserved to be imprisoned for life. But he caught a scandalous break. As the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, he is a national hero. And despite the tearful, televised confession in which Mr. Khan insisted that he alone was guilty, it is widely believed that Pakistan’s powerful military, including Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was then president and is a former army chief of staff, was complicit in this exceedingly vile trade. So Mr. Khan was pardoned and put under house arrest. But Pakistan was unable to hold to even that mild punishment… as far as is known, the Central Intelligence Agency and international nuclear inspectors were never allowed to interrogate him directly. And he never revealed the full extent of his network, which may well have involved providing the electronic design for a bomb itself ”.
It is this Pakistan that China seeks to induct into the NSG.
Pakistan’s reaction to India’s elevation to the STA-1 list verges on the absurd. Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Faisal stated on 3 August that “the move has serious implications. Pakistan calls on all States to carefully review their strategic export control policies that directly impinge on national security of Pakistan and undercut stated goals of preserving strategic stability in the region”. He added:"Pakistan believes all states have the right to acquire and use advanced and dual use technologies for socio-economic development under appropriate safeguards and without discrimination". Pakistan seemed to miss the point entirely that the move was a bilateral one between two sovereign nations in which Pakistan had no locus standi. Given its miserable proliferation record as brought out above, Pakistan’s demand for equity could at best be described as preposterous.
Pakistan has, since the mid-2000s, sought to describe its proliferation activities as a “closed chapter” in its history. The A.Q. Khan proliferation network has also by and large receded from public memory. However, the grim reality is that the footprints of the Pakistani proliferation network are starkly visible in all the nuclear hotspots of the world even today - Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan itself, and millions of lives are what is at stake.
It is the US that is bearing the brunt of reining in these unstable nuclear states, and it therefore recognizes the importance of choosing its partners with care. China’s support to proliferators such as Pakistan and rogue states such as North Korea, on the other hand, has not only served to embolden such countries but also raised serious question marks over the role of world leader that China aspires for.