The Sino-Pak nuclear deal: South Asia’s nuclear ailment continues

In June 2010, the US officially voiced its stand against the Sino-Pak nuclear deal stating that it will vote against an exemption for China to sell two civil nuclear reactors to Pakistan at the next Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Vienna in the month of September. This announcement came in the wake of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s six day visit to Beijing which appeared to be a reiteration of the pervasive Sino-Pak bond of military and nuclear cooperation. While the countries signed six deals ranging from healthcare, energy needs to containing terrorism, among other strategically important issues, the Sino-Pakistan civilian nuclear deal is considered to be of utmost concern and importance. China has previously constructed nuclear reactors for Pakistan, Chashma-1 and Chashma-2 and in April 2010, revealed its plans of building two 650-Megawatt nuclear reactors alongside its previous projects. Reportedly, China will lend Pakistan $207 million to buy Chashma-3 and Chashma-4.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group’s (NSG) meeting in New Zealand did not deem the Sino-Pakistan deal contentious enough to make an official statement. Interestingly, China did not officially elaborate its plans of constructing two new nuclear reactors to Pakistan during the course of the NSG meet. Any concerns about the deal violating the NSG guidelines were quelled by the justification that the deal was “grandfathered” long before Beijing formally joined the NSG. Additionally, Beijing assured that the deal was in tandem with its international obligations.

China has coddled the Pakistani administration for many years and the bond has only become stronger with time. The military and nuclear cooperation is a core component of their long friendship. It would not be an understatement to say that the proverb, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ aptly befits the South Asian equation. Without a doubt, China’s unfettering support to Pakistan is intended to keep a check on India and is indicative of its growing aggressiveness in the international arena. China’s track record in terms of nuclear and missile technology reflects its strategy of employing these assets in securing economic and political concessions. One can easily discern that the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008 presented an opportunity and precedent and paved the way for China’s ambition of exporting nuclear assets.

An interesting angle to the proposed deal was highlighted by Stephen Blank of the US Army War College, that the Sino-Pak nuclear deal was materialising in the context of renewed assertiveness by major nuclear powers to export reactors and technologies abroad. This enthusiasm is also enhanced by the demand of many Asian states for nuclear energy. The trend started by the Indo-US and Sino-Pak nuclear deals would also encourage other non-NPT signatories to request for similar deals, a circumstance clearly not beneficial for Obama’s dream of a nuclear-free world.

Any deal with a non-NPT signatory is bound to attract a certain degree of opposition, which was also evident in the case of India proposed exemption with the NSG. Palpably, this remains true even for Pakistan, but does not ensure that the deal would not be placed on the table in the coming years. This can be exemplified by the Indo-US nuclear deal, which faced opposition from many countries (Australia, Pakistan, Iran, Ireland, Switzerland, New Zealand and Canada) but eventually materialised. While the USA underwent a series of complex stages and negotiations in terms of the intricacies of the deal, expecting a similar conduct from China is seemingly idealistic. China’s missile assistance to Iran exemplifies China’s attitude towards US’s opposition. After perennial resistance from the US, China did “try” to strengthen its control over the export of missile-related technology, but the efforts did not satisfy the US administration. This issue of missile proliferation continues to remain an area of concern for Washington. It is also important to note that while the US may have taken a stern stand in regard to Iran, their perusal in terms of the Sino-Pak deal may not be as effective. In consideration of Pakistan’s indispensability due to their current engagement in Afghanistan and US’s reliance on China for sanctions against Iran and cooperation in dealing with North Korea.

Moreover, China’s passiveness towards the guidelines of the NSG reflects that it will continue to trade with Pakistan without paying much heed to international opinion. Also, Beijing and Islamabad are obviously aware that seeking an exemption for the deal at the NSG will not be a smooth sail. This would have been envisaged by both before announcing their intentions about the nuclear deal. Keeping this in mind, both China and Pakistan seem to have sowed the seeds for a deal, which may not materialise immediately owing to international pressure; but would certainly remain an agenda in Sino-Pak relations. The announcement can also be seen as a scheme to mentally prepare the world for this eventuality.

At this juncture, it is valid to bring to light the case of Pakistan’s questionable nuclear proliferation record and the culpable dealings of A.Q Khan. Notwithstanding this, one should not forget that international politics does not depend on ‘what’s right’ but on ‘what is beneficial’. Also, it is important to note that the NSG runs by consensus, but its decisions are not legally binding on its members. Not surprisingly, NSG members like Ireland, New Zealand and Austria, which criticised the Indo-US nuclear deal have not exhibited their opposition to the Sino-Pak deal. This remains so in light of China’s economic relations with almost all members of the cartel. Therefore, it should not come as a shock if some countries prefer to evade the seriousness of the deal and avoid looking askance. It should be incumbent on the US to follow up the stated opposition with concrete communications with Islamabad to ensure that the opposition holds weight instead of just being pro forma.


Aditi Malhotra

Date: 27/08/2010

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