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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK

Pakistan: The China Connection

Pakistanis protest in Islamabad against Indian tests

China could be a critical factor in Pakistan's decision on whether to answer India's nuclear tests with a test of its own. China has provided important assistance to Pakistan's nuclear and missile development programmes. But, as the BBC's Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus explains, China's leverage may be limited.

According to some western intelligence analysts, Pakistan's nuclear bomb is based on a well-proven Chinese design.

If they are right, then Pakistan would not necessarily need to test its own weapon since the Chinese have shown that their technology works in a whole series of test explosions.

But the Islamabad government's decision to test will be taken as much on political as purely practical factors.

Pakistan has final say

Just as in India, testing is likely to prove hugely popular at home. And whatever the Chinese may be saying, the decision on testing will be taken by Pakistan alone.

Nonetheless, China's view is important. A high-level Pakistani delegation went to Beijing at the start of this week, reportedly to seek security assurances from China.

If China, for example, was willing to give a categorical guarantee to Pakistan that it would respond should India attack Pakistan in the future.

[ image: Pakistan has been testing missiles]
Pakistan has been testing missiles
But China watchers are uncertain that Beijing would be willing to give such a guarantee.

If China were willing effectively to extend its nuclear umbrella over Pakistan, why should it have actively assisted Pakistan to develop its own bomb?

China's position is in fact far more sensitive.

South Asia - at least for the immediate future - is not high on its foreign policy agenda.

Above all, it wants stability in the region. It does not want India to become the unchallenged dominant power. And this is what explains its support for Pakistan.

But China is likely to respond to the current crisis with caution.

It might well prefer that Pakistan does not press ahead with a nuclear test. But many experts believe that China's ability to influence the government in Islamabad is limited.

China "weighing up pros and cons"

China's interest is to keep Pakistan in play as a potential balancing factor in the regional strategic equation.

Pakistan cannot do this with conventional or non-nuclear military means - hence China's support for Pakistan's nuclear programme.

But Beijing does not want things to get out of hand. Thus it will be weighing up the pros and cons of any Pakistani test. But that decision will be Pakistan's alone.

Most analysts believe that while things are finely balanced, the domestic pressures to test may be too great for Pakistan's prime minister to resist.

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