China's reported move to construct two more nuclear power plants in Pakistan was expected to be discussed at the 46-member Nuclear Supplies Group's five-day meeting at Christchurch, New Zealand last month.
While the consultative meeting of the NSG was expected to reflect on effective guidelines for global nuclear non-proliferation measures, the penultimate day's business of the plenary session was likely to discuss the Chinese proposals.
While the United States insists on the mandatory consensual clearance from the NSG for this proposal, China had not revealed its cards on the approach to be followed.
Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary general, China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, indicated that China was likely to back Pakistan's case. Zhai said on June 22, "This is not the first time China has helped Pakistan build nuclear reactors, and since it will be watched by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the deal is not going to have any problems."
More interesting was his comments on Pakistan. Zhai said, "Pakistan is also fighting a war on terror for the US as well as for itself, and the country's loss is greater than the US and the other 42 coalition nations combined. The economic aid it has received is too little compared to its loss. Pakistan has an urgent need for more civil energy and that should be looked after."
Such insistence by China on helping Pakistan, even at the cost of its image as a rising and 'responsible' power, had brought to the fore several issues including China's track record on nuclear proliferation and global and regional responses.
First, China's response to this issue smacks of establishing a 'separate kitchen' in international norms. For instance, in 1991, China signed an agreement with Pakistan to build a nuclear power plant at Chashma. This became operational by 2000. In 2004, China joined the NSG in agreeing to abide by the rules and regulations of this body.
China's entry into the NSG came a few months after Pakistani nuclear scientist A Q Khan's revelations on clandestine nuclear proliferation efforts between China, Pakistan, Libya, Iran and Syria. The next year, however, China commenced construction of a second nuclear reactor at Chashma, citing a longstanding agreement with Pakistan.
This second plant is to be operationalized in 2011. Significantly, in the light of the US-India 123 Agreement and the NSG's 'clean waiver' for India in 2008, China had announced in April 2010 that it wants to construct two more nuclear reactors at the same place in Pakistan by citing grandfathering clauses.
The China National Nuclear Corporation has agreed to finance two more nuclear reactors at Chashma at a cost of more than $200 million.
Interestingly, China had also announced during Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Bangladesh in April 2005 that Beijing will set up a nuclear power plant at Ropar, Pakistan. It is not clear if China received consent from the NSG for the Chashma III and Chashma IV and Ropar projects or whether China had cited unilateral sovereignty clauses in building these plants, despite being an NSG member.
Second, by insisting on a waiver for its all-weather friend, China is clearly following a regional balancer role in South Asia, which it had assiduously followed since late 1950s with the intention of providing alternate incentives to the South Asian neighbours of India and to confine India to the South Asia box, even in these times of globalisation.
China had insisted in 2008 in the run-up to the IAEA and NSG discussions on waiver to India that that should be non-discriminatory -- meaning, Pakistan should also be given the waiver despite Islamabad's well known clandestine activities.
China had also suggested in 2008 that India should first abide by the international arms control and disarmament treaties. It should be noted here that the international bodies had noted India's responsible track record in nuclear matters. China today is silent on Pakistan abiding by any such international treaties.
The implication of this stiff stance by China towards Pakistan could have far reaching consequences for the gains achieved in India-China relations, including from last year's Copenhagen dividend and the high-level visits between the two. Previously, the joint statements and declarations between India and China had suggested that each should address the other's security concerns.
Also, China's stance could be a stumbling block in the flowering of 'strategic partnership and cooperation' signed by the two countries in April 2005.
China's insistence on helping Pakistan in the nuclear power plant construction is also an indication that India-China cooperation, if any, is taking a backseat.
For instance, article 8 point 27 of the joint declaration of November 21, 2006 between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao stated that they agreed 'to promote cooperation in the field of nuclear energy'.
It also called for enhancing 'exchanges in the related academic fields'. These imply possible Chinese bidding for the Indian nuclear power plants. However, so far there has been no major progress in this regard as the Chinese nuclear technologies are relatively outdated.
Third, despite making periodic announcements on abiding by the arms control and disarmament measures, China's track record so far appears to be mixed, with proliferation tainting its image. Indeed, China had threatened to increase weapons of mass destruction transfers to areas of concern to the Western countries if the latter transfer arms to Taiwan or if the US proceeds with ballistic missile defense shields.
Termed as a 'strategic proliferator', China has embarked on selective transfers of WMD to counter the US.
China had also transferred WMDs to countries closer to the US, like Pakistan. While China is opposed to any transfers of WMD to Taiwan, it is willing to send supplies to other regions which can pose problems to countries like the US or potential adversaries to Chinese security in future.
This Chinese image is gradually being changed with the Western incentives of technology and investments in the overall scheme of being a 'responsible stakeholder' in the international system.
Fourth, China's help to Pakistan should also be seen in terms of its own national security concerns with the Pakistan army's assistance in tackling the Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang becoming crucial. China is also preparing to adjust to the possible US withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan.
To prepare for this situation, China had been investing in the counter-terrorism efforts with Pakistan and in the infrastructure developments, including in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
Fifth, China's pressure at the plenary meeting recently reflects to its newly-acquired muscle power in the international system, thanks to the Chinese economy becoming the third largest in the world and with the largest foreign exchange reserves. Today, China is heavily subsidizing the US economy, part from aspirations to exert pressure on the European Union and others in the NSG.
However, China's response also needs to consider its status as a receiver of nuclear high technologies from the US, Russia, France and other countries, whose role in the NSG deliberations could hardly be underestimated.
The author is professor in Chinese studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.