Two prominent American newspapers are reporting that Pakistan has steadily expanded its nuclear arsenal over the past two years, putting it ahead of archrival India and on a path to overtake Britain, the fifth-largest nuclear weapons power.
The Washington Post and New York Times said that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal now totals more than 100 deployed weapons, more than that of India.
At a State Department briefing Monday, spokesman P.J. Crowley refused to comment on the size of the Pakistani arsenal. But he emphasized the importance the Obama administration attaches to the proposed Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) it is trying to get approved at the U.N. disarmament talks in Geneva.
"And through our strategic dialogue, we are encouraging Pakistan to engage constructively on efforts to conclude the FMCT," said Crowley.
In Islamabad, the Pakistani foreign ministry issued a written response to Tuesday’s New York Times story. The newspaper said the new American intelligence estimate of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal poses a direct challenge to a key element of President Barack Obama’s national security strategy, the reduction of nuclear stockpiles around the world.
Pakistan's foreign ministry did not deny the country has been increasing its nuclear capability, but said it continues to follow a responsible policy of maintaining credible minimum deterrence. The ministry said Pakistan is mindful of the need to avoid an arms race with India.
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has been a South Asia adviser to the last four U.S. presidents, including President Obama. He says Pakistan's moves to increase its nuclear arsenal can trigger a dangerous arms race in that region.
"This has to be a source of concern because it will encourage arms races throughout the region, not just from India, but from China, from Iran, from everyone," said Riedel.
He says it can also be another irritant in Islamabad’s often-testy relationship with Washington.
"It will put new attention on Pakistan and add one more big ticket item to the US/Pakistani bilateral agenda, which already is a pretty full agenda," added Riedel.
Washington has expressed fears that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is at risk of falling into the hands of extremists.
In State Department cables obtained and released by the WikiLeaks website late last year and subsequently published in various newspaper, then U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad Anne Patterson expressed fears that Pakistani nuclear material was vulnerable to theft by insiders.
And Pakistan's military suspects that Washington has a plan to seize the nuclear arsenal if it is judged to be at risk of falling into the wrong hands.