The seduction of the Chinese nuclear horn

Pompeo: China using nuclear weapons program aid to seduce US allies in Middle East

By Joel Gehrke

September 24, 2020 – 3:25 PM

China is using the prospect of access to technology related to a nuclear weapons program to lure American allies into Beijing’s geopolitical orbit, U.S. officials and lawmakers fear.

“I’m sure that they are,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Washington Examiner during an interview this week. “Certainly, when it comes to missile systems, we’ve seen that.”

China reportedly has provided Saudi Arabia with assistance in building a facility that can process yellowcake, which arms control observers regard as a sign that Riyadh could partner with the communist power to develop its own nuclear program. That suspicion was made explicit during a wide-ranging Senate hearing on the state of American policy in the Middle East, in which the sensitivity of the topic precluded a full discussion but couldn’t hide the U.S. unease about whether Riyadh’s security plans could benefit China.

“May I ask our witnesses about Saudi Arabia and its efforts to develop its own indigenous nuclear material program and to have a missile program, as well, which would be an enormously destabilizing element into the Middle East,” Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked State Department officials during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “If China is helping Saudi Arabia right now, the American people have a right to know that, especially a month before a presidential election.”

State Department undersecretary David Hale demurred repeatedly, explaining that all of the information available to him on that topic is classified.

“The most effective means to prevent this kind of proliferation and destabilizing activity would be to make sure that we’re addressing the threats that Saudi Arabia faces and providing it with the means of self-defense,” said Hale, the State Department’s third-highest ranking official.

Saudi Arabia has declared an interest in civilian nuclear power, but American analysts historically look with skepticism at oil-rich nations that seek nuclear energy.

“A country that has huge oil and natural gas reserves and is seeking nuclear power, for what? Not because it needs it for domestic energy, but for its design for nuclear weapons,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez said during the hearing to explain the origin of his suspicion that Iran wanted nuclear weapons.

The relationship between the U.S. policy towards Iran and the Saudi interest in nuclear power proved controversial, as Democratic lawmakers argued that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal had the unintended consequence of diminishing constraints on Tehran’s program and thus of incentivizing Saudi Arabia to pursue the same capability.

Administration officials, on the other hand, maintained that the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and the renewal of U.S. sanctions represented a step toward a more substantial curb on the Iranian program.

“We think that with that pressure, once our election is over, they will come to the negotiating table,” State Department special representative Elliot Abrams said during the hearing. “We do hope for the ability to negotiate what we would view as a comprehensive deal that would include a nuclear aspect that would really prevent Iran from moving toward a nuclear weapon — something that we don’t believe the JCPOA actually did.”

Hale testified that, in the meantime, U.S. officials are urging Saudi Arabia to strike a “gold standard” nuclear power cooperation agreement in which Riyadh would acquire civil nuclear power but would not build any nuclear industry infrastructure that could pull double-duty for a nuclear weapons program.

“We agree that there has to be commitment to a gold standard,” Hale said. “The most effective way in order to prevent those hypothetical scenarios from unfolding is to make sure that Saudi Arabia knows that we together are partners in defense of their security and that we are addressing their legitimate security needs.”

Pompeo didn’t comment explicitly on the yellowcake report, but he acknowledged in the interview that China is offering missile capabilities not only to reap financial gains, but also to build new alliances at the expense of the United States.

“They’re developing this technology, and they are actively soliciting in the market all across the world,” Pompeo told the Washington Examiner. “There’s no doubt that they’re using that both for economic benefit, but to create security alliances as well.”

That observation keyed an acknowledgment that the administration’s recent attempts to broker Arab-Israeli peace deals represent, in part, an effort to blunt China’s attempts to peel Middle Eastern nations away from the U.S.

“It’s why [we’re doing] what we’re doing in the Middle East with the Abraham Accords and the coalition that we’re building out and continuing to make sure that America is investing in those places and that the West is connected to the Middle East,” Pompeo said. “This will create the option set, so that these countries know that they can rely on its good friend and partner in the United States [and] don’t have to turn to China for their security.”

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