WASHINGTON: Pakistan’s perspective on US efforts to help India join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), while shunning Islamabad, finally echoed in the US Congress on Thursday where the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee learned from witnesses that this policy could worsen the nuclear race in South Asia.
Witnesses, and some lawmakers, noted that sanctions imposed on Pakistan in the 1990s increased the country’s dependence on nuclear weapons and the same would happen again if those restrictions were reintroduced.
“The policy of the current US administration to support an unconditional and exceptional NSG membership path for India is problematic,” Toby Dalton, a co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the committee.
Mr Dalton, who heads the Nuclear Policy Programme at this key Washington think tank, pointed out that the Obama administration’s current policy required no commitments from India to bring its nuclear weapons practices in line with those of other nuclear states in return for membership of this 48-nation group.
“It also opens no pathway to membership for Pakistan that would incentivise it to consider nuclear restraints,” he added.
Both India and Pakistan had applied for NSG membership earlier this summer but were rejected. The group requires consensus of all member nations to admit a new member and both failed to meet this criterion, although the United States and several other powers strongly supported India. China, however, opposed India’s application, arguing that it was a mistake to leave Pakistan out.
Veterans covering congressional hearings noticed a new, conciliatory tone towards Pakistan during Thursday’s proceedings, although in June the Senate had suspended $300 million of military aid to Pakistan over its failure to eliminate the Haqqani network.
But on Thursday some key senators, as well as witnesses, agreed that withdrawing money would not force Pakistan to change its policies. Some observers saw the hearing as “a baby step” towards restoring the suspended aid.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, asked Mr Dalton what interests did Pakistan have in protecting its nuclear facilities.
“They have a strong interest in doing so,” said the congressional witness while explaining how there’s an almost complete consensus in Pakistan to retaining the nuclear option.
“Perhaps, nukes and cricket are the only two things that they have a consensus on,” he said, calling the nukes Pakistan’s “crown jewels”.
“They have taken significant measures to ensure that the nukes are well-protected,” he said. “They understand the challenges and threats and have put in place as good a system as they can.”
He explained how Pakistan screened the people selected to protect their nuclear installations to ensure that militants do not penetrate those facilities.
Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, asked if the relationship that Pakistan had developed with North Korea during the A.Q. Khan network still existed.
Mr Dalton said that after the AQK episode, Pakistan had moved away from that relationship and there was nothing substantial, except some media accounts, to suggest that it (the network) still existed.
“They have demonstrated a desire to make sure it (the AQK episode) does not happen again and they understand the damage AQK has done,” he said.
Robert L. Grenier, the chairman of another Washington think tank, ERG Partners, noted that Pakistan reached out to North Korea and Iran in the 1990s, when the United States “sanctioned as heavily as it could”.
He noted that Pakistan wanted to retain its nuclear programme to deal with a possible threat from India. “They could, in no way, match India in conventional weapons, so they chose to get help where they could find it.”
Mr Grenier urged the United States to be “very, very careful” and “maintain some relationship with Pakistan” despite differences over the Haqqani network.
“If we treat them as a pariah, they are likely to behave as a pariah,” he warned.
Most exciting thing
Another witness, Daniel Markey of the Johns Hopkins University, described the proposed economic corridor as the “single most exciting thing” that has happened in Pakistan in a long time, “in a semi positive way”.
He noted that most Pakistanis were excited about it, not just because it would strengthen their relationship with China but because they think it would open up international trade routes for them.
Dr Markey noted that the current instability in Pakistan was linked to the country’s economic instability and anything that strengthened economy was good for Pakistan.
For the United States, he said, it was “partly positive” and partly a cause of concern. Positive because it would bring stability to Pakistan and worrying in the long run because “we have questions about what it means for China’s profile in the region”.
Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, asked if removing the shackles on India’s nuclear programme could worsen the nuclear race in South Asia.
“Yes, absolutely, it would,” said Mr Dalton, adding: “It will make the situation more dangerous”.
Senator Markey recalled that Pakistan had recently offered to India a bilateral arrangement on non-testing of nuclear weapons and asked the witnesses if it was a sincere offer.
Dr Markey said that such offers got diplomatic mileage for Pakistan as Islamabad knows India will never accept this offer and would justify its refusal with its concerns about China.
Mr Dalton said such an agreement was possible but difficult.