Last May, India and Pakistan, traditional foes who have fought three wars in their fifty-year existence as independent states, shocked the world by setting off a round of nuclear weapons tests, highlighting South Asia as a possible arena for a nuclear war. Ironically, the tests served to deepen cooperation between China and the United States as the two nations found a common cause in this development.
India began the exchange with underground nuclear blasts on May 11, its first since 1974. Before the start of the tests, Indian defense minister Georges Fernandes rationalized the decision by referring to China as “Enemy No. 1” and a military threat to India. China and India fought a border war in 1962 but relations had been improving in recent years; it seems clear that the tests were aimed not at China, but Pakistan. Within the month, Pakistan responded with tests of its own. The actions of the two nations were condemned worldwide and seen as destabilizing to the South Asian region. Many fear a new arms race centered in South Asia.
Pakistan has enjoyed a close military relationship with China for decades, and Beijing has been accused of aiding the Islamic nation in the development of nuclear weapons—accusations which both nations have denied. Although the Pakistani foreign secretary traveled to Beijing within a week of the Indian tests, it is not clear whether the Chinese were unwilling or unable to dissuade Islamabad from conducting its own tests.
In the United States, President Bill Clinton linked trade privileges for China and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) with the recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, arguing that a good relationship with Beijing is important for U.S. national security as it helps to foster stability in Asia. Sanctions were imposed on both India and Pakistan by the United States as required under the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1994.
The new presidential “hotline” inaugurated by President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin was used for the first time in May to discuss the nuclear face-off between the two South Asian nations. In June, Washington and Beijing jointly proposed a meeting of officials to discuss the crisis. Later that month, security issues in general and the South Asian crisis in particular were also high on the Clinton-Jiang summit agenda.
Ultimately the summit discussion resulted in a joint statement emphasizing the shared interest of China and the U.S. in global nonproliferation as well as a peaceful and stable South Asia. This was the first Sino-U.S. statement to be issued concerning a third country. In addition, the two nations agreed to work more closely together on regional security issues to strengthen peace and stability in South Asia as well as other volatile regions of the world. China’s role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program was not addressed.
Therefore, China has now pledged itself as a partner in global nonproliferation, which constitutes a significant change from only two years ago when it was a target of world criticism for its refusal to sign the CTBT until the completion of its last nuclear test.