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Zardari in Beijing: Dilemmas of a nuclear world

By Harsh V Pant
July 07, 2010 19:00 IST
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The Sino-Pakistan nuclear pact highlights the growing assertiveness of China in global politics and its willingness to take on Washington. It also showcases China's penchant for viewing Pakistan as an important asset in countering India, writes Harsh V Pant.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, is in China this week for a six-day trip during which the civilian nuclear deal between Beijing and Islamabad is likely to be firmed up. It is not entirely clear what transpired at the recently-concluded 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group on the proposed Sino-Pak nuclear deal.

In a statement, the NSG merely reiterated "the value of ongoing consultation and transparency" referring to the discussions on the proposed sale of nuclear reactors by China to Pakistan. It is likely that China will go ahead with its nuclear pact with Pakistan especially now when the NSG members have failed in speaking in one voice opposing the pact. Despite all evidence to the contrary, China has proclaimed that its proposed two new nuclear reactors are 'totally consistent' with its international obligations under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and supervision.

At a time when nuclear proliferation is a major area of concern for the international community and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference has ended last month in New York at the United Nations with lofty declarations, reports that China is all set to allow its state entities to supply two new nuclear reactors to Pakistan should be a matter of grave concern.

China's state-owned, China National Nuclear Cooperation has signed an agreement with Pakistan for two new nuclear reactors at the Chashma site in Pakistan's Punjab province -- Chashma III and Chashma IV. This is in addition to two nuclear reactors already built by China at the same site. This action of China will be in clear violation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines that forbid nuclear transfers to countries not signatories to the NPT or adhere to comprehensive international safeguards on their nuclear programme.

But the China of today is willing to pursue its interests more assertively and its actions are a challenge to the American ability to maintain the current global order, including the non-proliferation regime.

Ever since the US decided to conclude the civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with India, China has indicated its displeasure by various means. With the exception of China, other major global powers such as Britain, France, Germany and Russia supported the US-India nuclear deal as they were eager to sell nuclear fuel, reactors and equipment to India. China, on its part, made its displeasure clear by asking India to sign the NPT and dismantle its nuclear weapons. Since the US-India deal is in many ways a recognition of India's rising global profile, China, not surprisingly, has not very happy with the outcome and quickly declared that it will be selling new nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

It was a not so subtle message to the US that if Washington decided to play favourites, China also retained the same right. Now China is suggesting that the deal to supply two new reactors is in fact a continuation of its pact with Pakistan before it had joined the NSG in 2004.

Pakistan, for its part, had also demanded an India-like nuclear pact from Washington. The George Bush administration had made it clear that given Pakistan's abysmal nuclear proliferation record exemplified by the A Q Khan network, there was no question of treating Pakistan on par with India. When Islamabad reiterated its demand recently in its ministerial level 'strategic dialogue' with the Barack Obama administration, it was again turned down. Yet a number of voices in Washington policy circles have a made a case for a civilian nuclear pact with Pakistan, especially as Islamabad's support remains crucial to winning the war in Afghanistan at the earliest.

The US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, has been reported to have suggested that the US was 'beginning to have a discussion with the Pakistan government' on the country's desire to tap nuclear energy. And there have been indications that the Obama administration is likely to accept China's nuclear commerce with Pakistan in return for China's help in containing Iranian nuclear ambitions and will not be an obstacle in the process.

But the Obama administration soon realised that its non-proliferation and larger strategic agenda would suffer grievous damage if it was viewed as supporting the deal. Of course, none of this mattered in the end.

China shares a special relationship with Pakistan. Based on their convergent interests vis-à-vis India, China and Pakistan reached a strategic understanding in mid-1950s, a bond that has only strengthened ever since. Sino-Pakistan ties gained particular momentum in aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war when the two states signed a boundary agreement recognizing Chinese control over portions of the disputed Kashmir territory and since then the ties have been so strong that the Chinese President Hu Jintao has described the relationship as "higher than mountains and deeper than oceans."

Maintaining close ties with China has been a priority for Islamabad and Beijing has provided extensive economic, military and technical assistance to Pakistan over the years. The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme is essentially an extension of the Chinese one. China's crucial role in the development of Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure is well documented. Although China has long denied helping any nation attain a nuclear capability, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, A Q Khan, himself has acknowledged the crucial role China has played in his nation's nuclear weaponisation.

The China-Pakistan nuclear relationship is perhaps the only case where a nuclear weapon state has actually passed on weapons grade fissile material as well as a bomb design to a non-nuclear weapon state. Sino-Pakistan collusion on nuclear issues has continued despite China being a signatory to the NPT.

The Sino-Pakistan nuclear pact underlines a number of issues. It highlights once again the growing assertiveness of China in global politics and its willingness to take on Washington. It also showcases China's penchant for viewing Pakistan as an important asset in countering India. Sections of the Indian policy-makers have been dreaming about a Sino-Indian rapprochement and have not shied away from blaming the Indian government for a downturn in China-India ties.

But China will keep relying on Pakistan to counter India's growing regional and global profile. Meanwhile, the global non-proliferation regime is virtually dead. Sino-Pakistan nuclear relationship has been the single most important factor in wrecking the foundations of NPT. China's nuclear programme was the reason why India initiated its own nuclear programme and Sino-Pakistan nuclear and missile duopoly in the 1990s forced India to go overtly nuclear in 1998.

If Beijing believes that helping Pakistan, a country that has never shied away from illegally exporting nuclear technology, to serve its strategic agenda is not problematic, then there is little hope that it will ever become a guarantor of a regime that seeks to stabilise the global nuclear order.

Not surprisingly, an arms race is underway in West Asia between a Shia Iran intent on acquiring the nuclear capability in response to a Sunni Pakistan-Saudi Arabia collaboration on nuclear issues. No prizes for guessing who is supplying missiles to Iran even while providing nuclear capability to Pakistan: China, of course!

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College, London.


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Harsh V Pant