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Pak's Khushab reactor and its Chinese 'khushboo'

Pak's Khushab reactor and its Chinese 'khushboo'

Author: Ashutosh Sheshabalaya in Bassilly (Belgium)
Publication: Sify News
Date: August 10 2006
URL: http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14267382

Selective amnesia is the theme of several Hollywood B-movies. It is also a disorder to which American newspapers and their fellow travellers sometimes succumb. A good example is the late July revelation in the US media about the 'new' Pakistani nuclear reactor at Khushab, and the dangers this poses for the world -for the US and the 'world' mind you, rather than India.

India, for decades confronting a US-armed Pakistani feudal-military theocracy, is now suddenly seen to be part of the world's Pakistan problem.

The Khushab 'disclosure' could not have been more timely. The story broke just as the US House of Representatives began its debate on the India-US nuclear deal. This allegedly frees up India to divert more resources to nuclear weapons, or so goes the story. Thus the problem, since Pakistan seems to have been forced to follow suit.

What makes matters worse is the selective amnesia - about China, and the Chinese flavour in Pakistan's nuclear program. Talk about having it not just both ways, but every which way.

Like some of their Hollywood counterparts, such media exposes are feeble. They have, as we shall see, holes in the centre and big cracks along the sides. Unlike the movies, however, their mix of fact and fantasy resonates round the world.

These linger at the edge of its collective perception for months, years and more -especially since those at the receiving end (read India) lack the will to counterattack. And like movies released before the holiday seasons, these sensational exposes are timed well. This is another reason for their resonance.

Read other hard-hitting columns

The Washington Post fired the first shots in a front-page story on July 24, 2006 headlined Pakistan Expanding Nuclear Program.

Based on a report from a group of non-proliferation theologians called ISIS, and backed up with hearsay by the usual clutch of experts speaking "on condition of anonymity", it wrote that "Pakistan has begun building … a powerful new reactor" which would signify a "new escalation" in the South Asian arms race - and dire consequences for the world beyond.

Before shouting Eureka, The Washington Post failed to explain where ISIS got its numbers.

To show rough equivalence between India and Pakistan (crucial for allegations about an arms 'race'), it declared "30 to 35 nuclear warheads" for India and "30 to 50" for Pakistan.

More credible sources like the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) have reported 70-110 warheads for India and 50-110 for Pakistan. Some years ago, the world's most authoritative military analyst, Jane's, estimated 390-470 warheads for India - way ahead of Pakistan and in "the same league as the French and the Chinese".

I am not in a 'mine is bigger than yours' act here. Instead, I wish to show how a pillar of the US establishment and icon of the free press conjures baseline numbers like rabbits from a magician's hat - and then proceeds unchecked to build up a theory of geopolitical apocalypse.

But then, neither did The Washington Post do its moral arithmetic.

For even with the Jane's estimates, it would take two centuries before the extra nukes made feasible for India by virtue of its US deal and for Pakistan by Khushab ("40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year"), equal that of the 25,000 stockpiled by the US and Russia.

Worst of all (at least to my eyes) was The Washington Post attributing the Khushab effort to Pakistan alone.

For a country like Pakistan, whose gross industrial output fits into one of the larger Indian states, the drive to construct a large and complex 1,000 MW reactor (a third larger than India's state-of-the-art) is impressive.

This is much along the lines of its ability to 'indigenously build' long-range ballistic missiles without having placed even a small satellite in orbit - or for that matter, "co-produce" fighter jets without making trucks or cars.

But like its "homegrown" missiles cloned from North Korea (even schoolkids can see the similarity in pictures), the Pakistani nuclear program is pure Chinese spawn.

And this is where the American media's selective amnesia comes in with a bang.

Joby Warrick, the correspondent of The Washington Post, evidently failed to consult his own newspaper's archives. For as far back as April 1996, The Post said: "In addition to handing over the blueprints for a bomb, … China has sent a continuous stream of nuclear engineers and other technical experts to Pakistan to work on its weapons program and even now is helping Pakistan build a nuclear reactor suited for making plutonium for use in more powerful and compact nuclear weapons."

That reactor (no prize for guessing) was Khushab. And the discovery of these Chinese links (crucially, two years before India's May 1998 tests) was made when US intelligence was investigating the redoubtable Abdul Qadeer Khan - before forgetting about him through the rest of the Clinton presidency.

The China amnesia was contagious, and The New York Times quickly caught the bug. In a July 31, 2006 column titled A World Gone Mad, it cited anti-India US Congressman Ed Markey: "This is not just about Pakistan, or Pakistan and India…. What impact will this have on China, which is looking at what India might do?"

The columnist, Bob Herbert, reinforced such worries dramatically: "Does anyone think China will sit quietly by as India and Pakistan develop the capacity to outpace it in the production of nukes?"

The absurdity of these concerns - about Chinese reactions to a game plan hatched in Beijing - is a good indicator of the acuteness of such selective amnesia. It also illustrates the Machiavellian (or should I say Kautilyan) sophistication of China, pitched against which people like Markey and Herbert stand little chance.

This brings up another inconvenient conclusion: North Korea's nuclear programme is grandfathered by the Chinese, for it was the Pakistanis which traded their made-in-China nuclear knowhow for North Korean missiles.

This was a matter long known to Indian intelligence agencies, to their US counterparts, and off-and-on, to the US media, too.

Underneath all this media-catalysed muddleheadedness is another familiar story, last encountered during the Kargil conflict. This involves the patronizing of Third World nations like India and Pakistan (not China).

Lest we forget, China is crucial to US talks with North Korea about its nuclear programme, and potentially to the fallout of the India-Pakistan arms race, should Ed Markey, Bob Herbert and The New York Times have their way.

In effect, a country like India - especially when conjoined to Pakistan - remains seen by the West as a kid armed with dangerous toys, wholly unaware of the risks - until illuminated by enlightened nations and their media.

On July 25, 2006 Britain's Guardian noted that the Indian government must know of the new reactor. It splashed a picture of Khushab taken from America's Digital Globe satellite, on which the ISIS report was "largely based".

Nowhere did the newspaper mention that one of Digital Globe's main competitors is the far larger constellation of sophisticated Indian IRS remote sensing satellites.

Indeed, somewhere in New Delhi, there must be stacks of Indian imagery establishing the Chinese khushboo at Khushab. To me, the picture in the Guardian may well have originated in an Indian IRS satellite.

High time therefore to give Guardian correspondent Randeep Ramesh and his American cousins a tour of the Indian Space Research Organisation. I would gladly pay for that privilege.

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