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Pakistan gets nuclear deal by proxy

By T P Sreenivasan
May 07, 2010 14:42 IST
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Pakistan was seeking equal treatment as India, but it may have turned out to be more equal in the bargain, says T P Sreenivasan.

The signals from Washington in the last two months were clearly in favour of civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan after a couple of think-tanks came to the conclusion that the imbalance in South Asia, created by the India-US nuclear deal, should be rectified.

Scholars like Professor Steve Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington openly favoured it, even though he thought that it would not happen. Even as the Obama administration kept denying it, Hillary Clinton hinted at a parallel approach to India and Pakistan on nuclear matters. The contours of a new nuclear landscape have emerged with the announcement that China will build two nuclear reactors in Pakistan to restore the nuclear balance in South Asia.

China confirmed on April 29, 2010 that Chinese and Pakistani officials have signed an agreement to finance the construction of two nuclear reactors to be built in Pakistan by Chinese firms. China has also claimed that the deal is in conformity with the international standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, recalling that China and Pakistan had begun cooperation in civil nuclear projects in 2004, before China joined the Nuclear Supplier Group, NSG. The reactors proposed to be built in Pakistan by China will have a capacity of 300 MWS each and four more similar reactors are supposed to be in the pipeline.

The curious thing about the deal is that the Non-proliferation ayatollahs in the US have reacted calmly to the news. Former US congresswoman Ellen Taucher, the new nonproliferation czar of the Obama administration's reaction was timid. 'These things take a long time. So I am going to wait and see,' she said. At best, she is accepting the inevitable, at worst; she is revealing complicity in the deal, which has been seen in Washington as a necessary evil.

If Washington was going to face the flak at the NPT Review Conference this month in New York on account of the India deal, it might as well take Pakistan and China on its side against the onslaught of the non-Nuclear Weapons States.

China had insisted, throughout the long debate on the India-US nuclear deal that any exception given to India should be on the basis of criteria and not discriminatory. When it finally acquiesced in the NSG waiver for India, China had made up its mind either to persuade the US to give a similar deal to Pakistan or to take law into its own hands and present to the world a fait accompli. China has done better by securing the understanding of the US before announcing the deal with Pakistan.

The details of the Pakistan-China deal are far from clear, but the stringent conditions India has accepted in its deal with the US seem to be absent in the instant case. Pakistan has neither agreed to throw open its nuclear reactors to IAEA inspections, nor has reached any agreement with the IAEA on safeguards, including the Additional Protocol, permitting intrusive inspections, which India has accepted. Perhaps, these conditions may come up when the matter is brought up at the NSG.

But given the US position, the NSG may, at best, impose the same conditions as in the Indian case. But in the case of China, the transparent process in the US Congress and elsewhere will be absent and Pakistan is likely to sail through the NSG, with conditions similar to those implicit in the India waiver.

Interestingly, China does not seem to have claimed exemption under the 'grandfather clause' for the supply by arguing that the present deal was part of the 1985 agreement, which led to the construction of two reactors in Pakistan. The argument clearly is that the deal is necessary to restore the nuclear balance in South Asia, a right China arrogates to itself with the acceptance of the US.

China has accepted the Pakistani contention that India will be able to strengthen its weapons capability by devoting its entire production of fissile material for arms, while securing enough supplies of uranium from abroad for peaceful uses.

Apart from the current mood in Washington to appease Pakistan in the context of its Afpak policy, there are two reasons why the US will not object to the Pakistan-China deal at the NSG or elsewhere. It needs China's support immediately to impose sanctions against Iran and China may well have extracted its price for an abstention on the Iran sanctions resolution in the Security Council. Contrary to the provisions of the UN Charter, an abstention by a permanent member has come to be considered as assent.

Secondly, Pakistan has been blocking the negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), much to the chagrin of a majority of member States. China may well have insisted that Pakistan should let the FMCT negotiations go forward, now that Pakistan had the facility of importing reactors without signing the NPT.

This clean operation of a deal by proxy leaves India in a quandary. The prime minister has already hinted that India would have no objection if Pakistan was allowed to have civil nuclear trade. We would find it delicate to object to the Pakistan-China deal if it happens to have the same conditions that India accepted. Since the US has not given a deal to Pakistan, its earlier objections on the basis of Pakistan's track record have been overcome.

While India is waiting for the nuclear liability bill and the necessary internal procedures in the US to begin nuclear trade with the US, Pakistan may well have two nuclear reactors constructed on its own soil. Pakistan will not have to find the money to pay either as the Pakistan-China agreement speaks of 'financing' the construction of the reactors. Pakistan was seeking equal treatment as India, but it may have turned out to be more equal in the bargain.

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T P Sreenivasan