The June meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has legitimized the supply of two additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan by China in violation of its own NSG commitments. This is a blow to our security interests. China presented the NSG with a frontal challenge, and the NSG has buckled.
China has demonstrated how its increasing economic and financial muscle has expanded its political options, even in the sensitive area of nuclear proliferation where its record is extremely tainted. Under the NSG guidelines China cannot engage in nuclear commerce with a country not subject to IAEA full scope safeguards, a category in which Pakistan falls. When China joined the NSG in 2004 it “grandfathered” its right to supply Chashma 1 and 2 reactors to Pakistan under a 1991 agreement, which is permissable under the revised 1992 NSG guidelines.
However, at that time, not only it did not mention any other outstanding previous commitments made to Pakistan, it even affirmed that it would not supply additional reactors beyond Chashma 1 and 2. Yet, the NSG has succumbed to China’s nuclear brinksmanship. The US and its allies want to keep China within the NSG fold, and therefore seem willing to make its regime sufficiently elastic to accommodate China’s infractions, rather than confront it and lose whatever control they think they can exercise on it through such cartels The hope is that as China’s stakes in the international system grow, it will see its own advantage in conforming to the non-proliferation regimes.
China clearly intended to present a fait accompli to the NSG on its renewed nuclear cooperation with Pakistan at a moment of its choosing. To condition international public opinion to expect some development on this score, it followed the tactic of allowing reports to periodically surface that it was preparing to supply additional reactors to Pakistan, without confirming or denying them when questioned. This kind of deception is a hall mark of China’s foreign policy.
The choreography of the Sino-Pakistan civilian nuclear cooperation is instructive. Just as Russia “grandfathered” Kudankulam 1 and 2 when it subscribed to the revised NSG guidelines in 1992, China did the same with Chashma 1 and 2. When India and the US started negotiations over the nuclear deal, China opened up its own negotiations with Pakistan, calibrating the pace of their advance to the progress made by us with the Americans. China needed to do that as the India-US nuclear deal became highly contentious domestically in India, creating uncertainty about its conclusion, and the Chinese knew that they could not give to Pakistan what the US might fail to deliver to India.
The parallel between phases of the India-US nuclear deal and Sino-Pakistan nuclear dealings shows China’s tenacity in its Pakistan policy. When PM and President Bush decided in 2005 to forge a nuclear pact, China signed an energy security agreement with Pakistan that included supply of 4 more PWR reactors of 300 MW each and 7 of 1000 MW capacity, laying out the scope of future cooperation to be pursued as circumstances warrant.
In 2006 the US Congress approved the Hyde Act; the same year during President Hu Jintao’s visit to Pakistan, civilian nuclear cooperation was projected prominently as part of the agenda. The text of the 123 Agreement was released in 2007 and the India-specific agreement was adopted by the IAEA in August 2008. In June 2008 Pakistan announced plans to build Chashma 3 and 4. The NSG waiver for India in September 2008, President Bush’s signature in October 2008 of the legislation enacting the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and the operationalization of the 123 Agreement in the same month cleared the political decks for China to proceed with its nuclear plans with Pakistan.
Accordingly, in October 2008 a document on civilian nuclear cooperation was signed during President Zardari’s visit to China. In March 2009 reports appeared that the design work for the reactors had been awarded to a Chinese company. In early 2010 it was reported that Pakistan had ratified an inter-governmental agreement with China that provided for Chinese funding for the reactors to the extent of 82%.
At the 2010 NSG meeting in New Zealand, some questions were apparently raised about such reports, but China evaded a direct answer and hid behind a misleading assurance that its cooperation with Pakistan would be within the NSG guidelines. Already reports had begun appearing that China would “grandfather” the supply of additional reactors. In September 2010 China disclosed its hand finally by proposing to the IAEA that Chashma 3 and 4, committed to Pakistan under a hitherto unrevealed 2003 agreement, be placed under its safeguards. In March this year, as a precursor to NSG approval, the IAEA unanimously approved the same type of safeguards for the new reactors as applicable to Chashma 1 and 2.
If China has got away with its NSG defiance, it is because the US has been unusually tolerant of China’s appalling proliferation record. China’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities primarily centered on Pakistan have deeply damaged India’s national security. The US has ignored the China-Pakistan proliferation nexus, to the point of covering it up in A.Q.Khan’s case, even though India is most affected. China, in any case, has now become far too powerful to be forced to conform to codes of conduct established by the West.
The US considers China’s cooperation in dealing with proliferation concerns about Iran and North Korea more important than its Pakistan connection. The overall US diplomatic posture on this issue has been low-key. The State Department has no doubt characterized China’s “grandfathering” ploy for Chashma 3 and 4 as a violation of its 2004 commitments, but what is important are not statements but actions.
Some argue that the supply of two additional nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards to Pakistan will not harm our security. This is ignoring China’s reasons for supplying them. China has slammed the India-US nuclear deal as discriminatory towards Pakistan. It has earlier provided nuclear weapon and missile technology to Pakistan in order to neutralize India strategically. Now it wants to neutralize any political or strategic gain obtained by India from the India-US nuclear deal and the NSG exemption as a non-NPT country by treating Pakistan similarly.
The political signal is that it will continue to instrumentalize Pakistan to balance India, and that if the US can favour India, it will favour Pakistan. That some Chinese and US circles view the India-US deal as integral to the strategic alignment of the two countries against China, to which China has reacted by strengthening its strategic links with Pakistan, only makes the anti-Indian thrust of China’s step more manifest.
We have contributed to this outcome ourselves by our largely unconcerned posture on the issue. We have downplayed its contentious aspect in our exchanges with China. The overall development of our ties with China may explain our prudence. We may not have wanted to disturb our dialogue with Pakistan. Our discomfiture cannot therefore be blamed on others altogether. If we cannot help ourselves, others will not do so. Even if we could not have stopped this deal, we should have expressed our concerns more visibly to gain strategic ground for the future.
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary(firstname.lastname@example.org)