Seizure of Pak-bound Chinese nuclear cargo in Mumbai sparks fresh proliferation concerns

Seizure has triggered a diplomatic row with China and Pakistan denying India’s claims

Custom officials seized a Chinese shipment at Mumbai’s Nhava Sheva port in January on the suspicion of being a possible dual use consignment which could be used for Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme | Sourced image Custom officials seized a Chinese shipment at Mumbai’s Nhava Sheva port in January on the suspicion of being a possible dual use consignment which could be used for Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme | Sourced image

Pakistan’s foreign office confirmed on Sunday the seizure of a Chinese shipment headed to that country by Indian agencies on the suspicion of it being masked to assist its nuclear programme. 

The seizure has triggered a diplomatic row, with China joining in by saying it strictly fulfils its international non-proliferation obligations and commitments.

As reported by THE WEEK, the consignment was seized by Indian agencies on January 23 at Nhava Sheva port in Mumbai on the suspicion that it was a possible dual-use consignment that could be used for Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme.

While China said it is verifying the authenticity of the reports, the Pakistan foreign office termed the seizure an innocuous case of “import of a commercial lathe machine by a Karachi-based commercial entity which supplies parts to the automobile industry in Pakistan.” 

The Chinese embassy in India, in a post of X, said that as a responsible major country, China strictly fulfils its international non-proliferation obligations and commitments.

The embassy also noted that in March 2020, some Indian media hyped up the Chinese ship, Da Cui Yun, “for transporting so called dual use materials”. They have now “learnt” that the materials seized by India were “by no means a piece of military equipment or a dual use item covered by China’s non-proliferation export control regime”, it said. 

Now, the Indian officials’ contention is that if Chinese authorities were still verifying the authenticity, then a response is premature about the nature of the consignment at this stage. 

Indian officials have also debunked Pakistani claims as an acceptance of complicity in masking the seized items that could easily be used in its nuclear and ballistic missile programme. 

They added that if it were a simple case of the import of a commercial lathe machine, then there was no need to mask the real recipient of the consignment.

Indian agencies allege Pakistan is using China as a conduit to procure dual-use and restricted items from Europe and the United States. 

But the Pakistan foreign office said that the specifications of the equipment indicated its purely commercial use.

“The transaction was being conducted through transparent banking channels with all the relevant documentation. The relevant private entities are pursuing the matter against this unjustified seizure,” said a Pakistan foreign office spokesperson following THE WEEK’s news break, which was widely followed up in Indian as well as Pakistani media. 

Pakistan has also termed the seizure Indian “highhandedness.”. But Indian officials pointed out that Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme is questionable and worrisome for the international community, which has been documenting the role of Pakistan as a repeat offender in order to build its nuclear and ballistic missile programme.

Indian officials referred to Pakistan’s role in the black market of nuclear technology, in which uranium enrichment centrifuges, nuclear designs and other technical know-how were clandestinely sold to countries like North Korea, Libya, and Iran. 

But the latest action by Indian authorities has given rise to fresh worries on Indian as well as foreign shores of proliferation concerns by Pakistan and China. 

It also triggered a diplomatic row, with Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson on Sunday claiming such acts (seizure by India) highlight the growing impunity of certain states in violating international norms and taking arbitrary measures in violation of international law. “This disruption of free trade underscores the dangers inherent in the arbitrary assumption of policing roles by states with dubious credentials,” said the Pakistani spokesperson. 

But Indian agencies have evidence of how Pakistan is using China as a conduit to procure dual-use and restricted items for possible use in its nuclear programme. 

Top port authorities told THE WEEK that the ship was loaded at Shekou port in China and was carrying CNC machinery, originally manufactured by an Italian firm. CNC means Computer Numerical Control, and such machines are basically controlled by a computer and produce a scale of efficiency, consistency, and accuracy that is not possible manually. 

After port authorities stopped the Malta-flagged Karachi-bound merchant ship, CMA CGM Attila, at Nhava Sheva port, they alerted the Indian defence authorities, who inspected the heavy cargo and reported their suspicions. 

According to documents like bills of lading and other details of the consignment, the consigner was mentioned as “Shanghai JXE Global Logistics Co Ltd” and the consignee was “Pakistan Wings Pvt Ltd” of Sialkot. 

As per the website of Pakistan Wings, it is a leading sea and air freight consolidator and third-party logistics provider. However, when Indian officials dug deeper, it was found that the consignment—weighing 22180 kilogrammes—was shipped by Taiyuan Mining Import and Export Co. Ltd and was meant for Cosmos Engineering in Pakistan. 

This is not the first instance when Indian port officials have seized such dual-use military-grade items that were being shipped from China to Pakistan. Cosmos Engineering, which is a Pakistani defence supplier, has been on the watch list since March 12, 2022, when Indian authorities interdicted a shipment of Italian made thermoelectric instruments at Nhava Sheva port. 

Indian officials suspect that these thermoelectric instruments were meant for a Pakistani uranium enrichment facility. Indian officials also believe that Pakistan Wings was mentioned as a consignee in a deliberate ploy to hide the name of the original consignee, which was Cosmos Engineering. 

Indian officials have long suspected that the Pakistani military is using the services of Pakistan Wings to facilitate shipments of dual-use and restricted items from different parts of the world. 

Such shipments, they said, are noticed coming from China, Italy, and Turkey to Pakistani defence entities. They also suspect that Pakistan Wings has close ties with Quantum Logix, a sanctioned entity by the US for acting contrary to national security interests. It was added to the US's Department of Commerce’s Export Administration Regulations (EAR) entities list on June 14, 2023. Indian officials say Chinese support for Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programme is an area of grave concern. 

Even in February 2020, a consignment of industrial autoclaves, a dual-use technology that can be used to produce rocket motors for missiles, was seized from a Chinese vessel, Dai Cui Yun, at Kandla port in Gujarat. It was masked as a consignment of industrial drier and was loaded at Jiangyin port in China, and was meant for Pakistan’s Port Qasim. It was hidden in the ship’s bottom cargo. 

Indian agencies are now examining whether the suspected Pakistani entities receiving the dual-use items were further supplying them to the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DESTO), which conducts the bulk of the research and development for the Pakistan Ministry of Defence Production. 

Even though both Pakistan and China deny the claims, officials say the seizure of such clandestine shipments shows both countries continuing cooperation in possible proliferation trading, violating international commitments. 

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