Growing Pakistan-Turkey axis and China's grand regional strategy

While the US and Israel is focused on Iran going nuclear, Pakistan is quietly transferring nuclear technology to Turkey. Beijing will be too happy to conduct Turkey’s first nuclear test on Chinese soil as it did for Pakistan, writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Tension has been mounting in the Gulf after few Katyusha rockets landed in the US embassy compound in Baghdad on December 21, for which the US blamed Iran. Since then US aircraft carrier USS Nimitz has been patrolling Gulf waters with American B-52 bombers periodically overflying the region.

The US nuclear submarine USS Georgia escorted by cruisers USS Port Royal and USS Philippine Sea transited through the Strait of Hormuz on December 21 and were joined by an Israeli submarine that entered via the Suez Canal. The US media prominently reported that USS Georgia was carrying 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 66 Special Forces soldiers.

US-Iran conflict

Post the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s Quds Force Commander, and other Iraqi officials outside Baghdad's International airport on January 3, 2020, in the US drone strike and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran on November 27 for which Iran blamed Israel, the Western Asian country had said these will be avenged at a time of Iran’s choosing, which meant no immediate response. After the rocket attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 20,

General Kenneth McKenzie commanding US CENTCOM stated that though this was a period of “heightened risk,” he believed that “Iran doesn't want a war with the United States right now." Earlier In September 2020, the IAEA reported Iran's enriched uranium stockpile had reached 2,105kg (4,640lb), which Iran insisted was exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Dawn of the New Year witnessed heated speeches at an event at Tehran University on January 1, 2021 marking the anniversary of the killing of General Soleimani.  Ebrahim Raisi, Chief Justice of Iran’s judicial System, however, later said that for any action to avenge Soleimani’s death, the word must come from President Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated that Washington would bear responsibility for the consequences of any possible adventure in the region. 

The current global news aside from being largely focused on vaccines to fight the pandemic is about Iran going for 20 percent uranium enrichment in an underground facility at Fordo. News also quotes "western sources" saying that Tehran has possibly seized an oil tanker flying a South Korean flag – MT Hankuk Chemi.  The orders for uranium enrichment have reportedly come from President Rouhani.

The transition period for the new presidential administration to take charge in the US makes it difficult to put the finger on who is trying to instigate conflict? Is Iran going nuclear because of new bonding with China or is it the Trump administration who is still, loathe to hand over power? 

Pakistan’s support to Turkey to become a nuclear power

While the US and Israel are focused on Iran going nuclear, Pakistan is quietly transferring nuclear technology to Turkey. Beijing will be too happy to conduct Turkey’s first nuclear test on Chinese soil as it did for Pakistan.

When tensions were high between Saudi Arabia and Iran a few years back, it was believed that Pakistan had a package of tactical nukes ready to be shipped to Saudi Arabia in the event of Iran going nuclear. But now Turkey has replaced Saudi Arabia as Pakistan’s mentor and guide. Current western fixation with Iran appears complacent about Pakistan proliferating nuclear and missile technology to Turkey. Being a NATO member the extent to which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is prepared to go for achieving his geopolitical ambitions appears not fully understood.

In September 2019, Erdogan publicly complained over Israel being a nuclear state while Turkey did not have missiles with nuclear warheads. But recent reports indicate Erdogan has asked Pakistani Army Chief General Q J Bajwa for sharing nuclear technology, to which it is being said the latter has agreed. 

The Turkey-Pakistan High-Level Military Dialogue Group (HLMDG) held in December 2020 is believed to have discussed this issue. Turkey and Pakistan have bonded more closely after jointly supporting and assisting Azerbaijan fight Armenia during the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Many Pakistani scientists are currently working with Turkey to enhance its ballistic and nuclear capabilities. 

Sitting in China’s lap, Pakistan cares little about violating the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and non-proliferation treaty, probably because Pakistan had wilfully also engaged in nuclear proliferation in the past with the US looking the other way - same as when China proliferated  nuclear technology to Pakistan. 

China’s grand strategy

Behind these rapidly changing dynamics in China’s grand strategy part of which was also behind Pakistan dropping Saudi Arabia and promoting Turkey as leader of the Islamic world. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is also playing to keep Israel on Pakistan’s side perhaps on Beijing’s directions. On one hand, Imran Khan says he is being “forced” to recognize Israel - conveying he would be loath to do so. But on the other hand, an advisor to Imran Khan arrived in Tel Aviv on board a British Airways plane on November 20 2020 on a secret visit to establish diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Israel.

China will be too happy if both Iran and Turkey go nuclear as China’s allies. A US-Iran conflict would not be in China’s interest considering China’s trade by sea, but a nuclear Iran would deter aggression against Iran. On the other hand, nuclear Turkey as China’s ally would serve China’s geostrategic interests much better. China would be ready to even conduct Turkey’s maiden nuclear test at Lop Nor as it did for Pakistan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s powers have just been enhanced, giving him the authority to mobilize the nation without reference to anybody. Xi it seems is in a great hurry to dominate the world. Therefore, the transfer of nuclear-tipped missiles to Turkey from China-Pakistan can also not be ruled out.  

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal)

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