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China Remains a Proliferation Concern in the Indian Subcontinent

Reshmi Kazi was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 22, 2016

    Recently, a mineral smuggling operation involving export of several tonnes of beryl1 — an atomic mineral ore of beryllium2 — reportedly to China, was jointly thwarted by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Rajasthan Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) in Kanakpura, Rajasthan.3 By the end of January this year, Rajasthan ATS had reportedly arrested six men. This incident highlighted two important issues.

    First, that an illicit racket involved in smuggling of valuable minerals like berylllium with atomic applications is flourishing in the region. The prime beneficiary of this racket is reportedly China and it could possibly involve Pakistan too, given the history of clandestine nuclear trade between the two “all weather friends”.

    Second, though India has a robust nuclear security system in place, capable of providing effective physical protection to sensitive materials housed at its nuclear facilities, still the security system needs to be constantly evaluated and upgraded at various levels. The mining department too needs to be more vigilant against any illegal movement of regulated items from within the country. To that extent, India has already established a national-level institutional mechanism in the form of a Counter Nuclear Smuggling Team, basically part of “a coordinated multi-agency approach to deal with the threat of individuals or group of individuals acquiring nuclear or radioactive material for malicious purposes.”4

    It is said that China, apart from the US, Canada, Russia and Brazil, is known to extract beryllium from the mineral ore for use in nuclear power plants, space technology and scanning purposes.5 Hence, it can be assumed that China has a steady demand for beryllium. But what is worrisome is China’s resort to illegal means for acquiring beryllium. China’s proliferation trends have remained a source of concern for the international community. Despite being a member of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), China remains a proliferator, and is known for exporting sensitive items that could be used for malicious purposes.

    As regards the recent smuggling incident, it is known that beryllium and its alloys fall under Category II Item 4 of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Guidelines, which include “a wide range of equipment, material and technologies, most of which have uses other than for missiles capable of delivering WMD.” Though there is greater flexibility in the treatment of Category II transfer applications of the MTCR Guidelines (as against Category I), the “member countries and those adhering unilaterally to the Guidelines” have unanimously agreed to exercise utmost restraint in the import and export of these items.6 The objective is to limit the risk of proliferation of controlled items or their technology falling into the hands of terrorist networks.

    However, China has consistently fallen short on its commitments and continues to remain a proliferation concern given the assistance it has rendered to countries such as Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. China’s continued proliferation by way of missile technology transfer has imparted Pakistan with know-how to develop its domestic missile programme. China has been a “key supplier” of technology, with entities providing nuclear and missile-related technology to Pakistan and Iran.7

    The United States Director of National Intelligence (DNI), in its Section 721 Report for 2011, had noted that Chinese “entities,” including state-owned defence industrial corporations, were reported to be “associated” with Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programmes as well as Iran’s missile programmes.8 China is also suspected of providing North Korea with sensitive items for its ballistic missile programme. China’s serial proliferation acts were also evident from its export of sensitive materials to Iran.

    Recently, China has accelerated its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan that involves setting up of at least six nuclear power projects in Islamabad.9 The China-Pakistan nuclear commerce is alleged to have been arranged without the sanction of the NSG. China’s argument that its actions are in compliance with NSG guidelines is far from credible as the agreement lacks adequate transparency. China’s export policies too have intensified apprehensions over proliferation trends that encourage illegal commerce in sensitive materials and technologies to countries of concern.

    The interception of the illegal beryl exports, reportedly destined for China, avers that there are loopholes that constitute serious weak links within the global nuclear security system. These weak links are also being used for malicious purposes by terrorists and other elements posing serious security threat to India and the rest of the global community.10 Thus, it is important that the international community reinforces its efforts aimed at mitigating the threat to nuclear security. Greater international cooperation would make the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) more effective in unravelling nuclear black markets and smuggling networks. It is equally important that nuclear weapon states like China act responsibly in preventing unlawful nuclear trade activities. As a state with advanced nuclear technology, India too would have to make consistent efforts to constantly upgrade its nuclear security system.

    The successful recovery of the illicitly diverted beryl also reflects on certain aspects of India’s approach to nuclear security. Undoubtedly, India has a very elaborate nuclear security system as it enmeshes various elements of nuclear security. This includes India’s consistent cooperation with the IAEA that prescribes international safeguards against misuse of nuclear materials and technology, and encourages nuclear safety and security criterions, and their implementation too. Besides, India being a party to the IAEA Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and its 2005 Amendment, is committed to maintaining highest standards of security for its nuclear materials.

    In addition, India has taken important measures to maintain and uphold an effective security system for transport of sensitive materials, nuclear material control and accounting mechanisms, and a highly rigorous personnel vetting method that reports any suspicious behaviour or activity of any individual who could be a potential insider threat. India’s personnel vetting involves extremely stringent measures and is believed to be much more rigorous than other personnel reliability systems functioning elsewhere in the world. The existing acts and rules implemented in India like the Atomic Energy Act, 1962; Foreign Trade (Development & Regulation) Amendment Act, 2010; Weapons of Mass Destruction and their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Act, 2005; and the Customs Act, 1962 constitute powerful tools in preventing proliferation.

    As part of its ongoing effort at strengthening the national implementation of physical protection, India adheres to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Series, which provides guidance on ensuring highest physical protection standards. Additionally, IAEA had conducted the Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) Mission to review India's nuclear regulatory agency, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), in March 2015.11 The IRRS in its report had acknowledged that India has “an experienced, knowledgeable and dedicated regulatory body for the protection of the public and the environment”, and had identified several ‘good practices’ in India’s nuclear regulatory framework.12 Furthermore, the IRRS team had also suggested “certain issues warranting attention or in need of improvement” and was of the view that “consideration of these would enhance the overall performance of the regulatory system.”13 Some of these issues are already in consideration like creating a network of 23 Emergency Response Centres for detecting and responding to any extreme nuclear or radiological incident, anywhere in India.

    Efforts to transform the de facto independence of AERB into de jure autonomy, through a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA), are under process and for which a bill is being finalised for introduction in the Indian Parliament. India is also set to propose a workshop on IAEA’s International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) during the year 2016.14 In a recent international conference on “India’s role in Global Nuclear Governance,” held at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi, several officials from the DAE had confirmed that India’s nuclear security architecture constitutes a robust system capable of thwarting any potential threat to its nuclear assets from any illicit diversion.15

    However, despite such credible assurances from DAE officials, India cannot afford to be complacent on this issue. The flourishing beryllium smuggling racket indicates the urgent need to further intensify physical protection of mines housing sensitive materials. The government must and with immediate effect scrutinise the mining activities, and implement measures to monitor the transportation security of minerals unearthed from the mines.

    Since threat to nuclear security is an ongoing issue, the process of improvisation and upgradation of physical protection measures too has to be continuous. This should remain the primary essence of India’s nuclear security culture and should permeate through all the agencies of its nuclear security establishment. The setting up of the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP), near Bahadurgarh in Haryana, is reflective of India’s nuclear security culture and also its rising nuclear security standards. It is this strong and effective nuclear security culture that made quick collaboration between the DAE, IB and the Rajasthan ATS possible.

    Nuclear security is a highly complex issue, which gets further convoluted with the complicity of countries in illicit diversion networks. China’s future plans to process spent nuclear fuel into plutonium for weapons purpose have already raised proliferation concerns worldwide. China’s continuing complicity in nuclear proliferation networks would weaken the global nuclear security regime. Hence, China must renew efforts and cooperate with the international community including India for reinvesting the benefits achieved by the Nuclear Security Summit process, and help develop stronger nuclear security architecture in the Indian subcontinent.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.