Tomorrow marks the conclusion of the month-long Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. Squarely in the middle of it, China announced a deal to supply two nuclear reactors to Pakistan, a nuclear-armed NPT non-signatory struggling to maintain its sovereignty and hosting modernity’s most effective proliferator, A.Q. Khan. Hardly a peep has been heard from the U.S. in response to this egregious NPT violation.
The reason is simple. On March 29th, the Obama Administration inked a nearly-identical deal with India, another nuclear-armed NPT non-signatory. Choosing to forsake policy principals – very publicly advertised in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Nuclear Posture Review, and the Nuclear Security Summit – stripped the U.S. of any legitimacy needed to oppose the China-Pakistan deal.
Paradoxically, in this case two wrongs somewhat make a right. The China-Pakistan deal is more than something the U.S. must tolerate. In the context of our deal with India, it actually improves our strategic circumstances.
India and Pakistan built their nuclear arsenals with the other in mind and have walked right to the edge of nuclear war. Each considers the other as a threat to its very existence and, as a consequence, Pakistan’s security sector fixates on its eastern border. Lesser attention to Al Qaeda and Taliban resistance in Pakistan's west is a direct opportunity cost. Our deal with India compounded Pakistan’s sense of insecurity and thus distracted it further from our counterinsurgency priority. China’s deal with Pakistan will restore the earlier equilibrium and refund our self-imposed opportunity costs in the counterinsurgency mission.
Even better would have been to remain true to our non-proliferation policy, table the deal with India, and resist the China-Pakistan arrangement with the legitimacy of the NPT review conference at our back. Pakistan and India remain strategically balanced and Pakistan’s attention to Al Qaeda and the Taliban remains constant, but at a uniformly increased risk of nuclear proliferation and conflict. The fact that costs in this arrangement are not as high as they could have been doesn’t change the fact that it is all cost and no benefit. We have undermined our own national security.
Policies have costs. Understanding the detailed, empirical budgetary costs is important. Equally important are opportunity costs. The opportunity cost of our deal with India has proven radioactive in the form of the China-Pakistan response – and the fallout still may not yet be over.