Pakistan is pressing ahead with expanding its nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programs, despite worries from international observers over their safety. Some argue that Washington should strike a deal to share civilian nuclear technology if Islamabad meets certain safeguards, similar to the U.S. deal with India. However, the chief of Pakistan's nuclear agency suggested he prefers to work with China.
Foreign analysts who study Pakistan's nuclear weapons program find much to worry about.
Peter Lavoy recently retired as the U.S. acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. During a conference in Islamabad this month organized by the Center of Pakistan and Gulf Studies, he detailed the weapons technology many outside analysts believe Pakistan is developing.
"Today Pakistan's nuclear weapons trajectory is the single most troubling concern in Washington and in other capitals. In particular, I am referring to the expansion of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program to include efforts to significantly increase fissile material production to design and fabricate multiple nuclear warheads with varying sizes and yields, to develop, test and ultimately deploy a wide variety of delivery systems with a wide range to include battle field range ballistic delivery systems for tactical nuclear weapons as they are often called," said Lavoy.
For many, the bigger worry than the technology itself is who controls it. During the 1980s and 1990s, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, built a proliferation network that secretly aided nuclear programs in Iran, Libya and North Korea. Pakistan military's ties with militant groups opposed to India and the Kabul regime in Afghanistan serve as an additional worry for the international community.
Mark Fitzpatrick of the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, however, said Islamabad has since taken commendable steps to safeguard its nuclear assets and should be allowed broader access to civilian nuclear technology.
"The time has come to offer Pakistan a nuclear cooperation deal akin to India's. Providing a formula for nuclear normalization is the most powerful tool western nations can use to positively shape Pakistan's nuclear posture. Offering nuclear legitimacy is also the most effective way to communicate that the United States and its allies do not seek forcefully to disarm Pakistan,” said Fitzpatrick.
He said that Pakistan has already met most of the conditions that were required of India in its agreement with the United States, including separating military and civilian nuclear facilities, observing a moratorium on nuclear testing and tightening export controls.
Pakistani officials have lately stepped up efforts to seek such a civilian nuclear deal with Washington to overcome its energy crisis. But surprisingly, speaking at the conference in Islamabad, Chairman of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Ansar Parvez said he recommends against such an arrangement, suggesting Islamabad is better off relying on China.
"If you are going to buy a nuclear power plant from a country you must have a very deep understanding with it you must have a relationship with it you must make sure that in time of need they will not leave you. So, as they say, once bitten twice shy but now I don't think that we can gain anything," said Parvez.
Parvez is referring to the United States, which had close relations with Pakistan when both were backing the Afghan insurgency against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.
After the Soviet withdrawal, relations between Islamabad and Washington worsened, in part over Pakistan’s nuclear program and its ties to the Afghan Taliban. Those tensions still exist to this day.
China has been a much more reliable ally for Islamabad for decades, and has provided urgently needed economic and defense cooperation.
That includes two nuclear plants that provide around 700 Megawatts (MW) of electricity. Two smaller units are under construction.
Pakistani officials say its nuclear advancements are meant to ease the country's chronic energy crisis. They say the construction of a 2200 MW nuclear power complex in Karachi with China's assistance is part of those efforts. The $10 billion project is scheduled to be completed in five years.
Parvez defended the country's nuclear advancements at the international conference on nuclear non-proliferation at Islamabad. He said Pakistan’s acute energy shortages require alternatives to oil and gas.
"It seems that to get out of this mess we have to use coal, imported or local, or nuclear [energy]. These are the only two options that are available to us in Pakistan in the current day scenario," said Parvez.
Although Pakistan's nuclear weapons program remains shrouded in secrecy, many foreign analysts believe its nuclear arsenal is growing at a faster pace and by the mid 2020s it could rank as the world's fourth or fifth biggest stockpile.