As India was signing its eighth civilian nuclear deal with Canada on the sidelines of last month’s G20 meeting, its officials were voicing concerns about China’s sale of two power reactors to Pakistan. India’s deal with Canada follows similar agreements with a number of other countries including France and Russia since the exemption it received from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in the wake of the US-India nuclear accord that entered into force in 2008.
There cannot be a more telling example of nuclear doublespeak than the objections to Pakistan-China cooperation raised by India and a cast of familiar characters in the Western media and think tank community. These ostensible concerns are devoid of either moral or legal basis because Pakistan-China civilian nuclear cooperation is of longstanding and the supply of reactors was ‘grandfathered’ under the agreement dating back to the 1980s that provided for an understanding in 2003 for further long term collaboration. This predates China joining the NSG in 2004.
So why all the fuss over nuclear power reactors being provided under full international safeguards? The answer might lie in the timing of the orchestrated campaign. Although plans for the third and fourth reactors at Chashma were publicly known years before, opposition to them surfaced at the time of the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May. This seemed a rather transparent bid to distract attention from the US-India nuclear deal, a fundamental violation of the Treaty and for that reason the source of continuing misgivings among many NPT members.
Different lobbies with a mix of motives seemed to lie behind the efforts to ignite a controversy. The aims may have included the following: pre-empt and deflect criticism of the US-India nuclear accord and mount pressure on Pakistan to modify its position in the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty talks at Geneva. Feeding into this campaign were right-wing critics of US President Barack Obama who sought to use the issue to depict his administration as being soft on China and Pakistan. A spate of analyses emanated from think tanks in Washington calling attention to Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation with some even urging that US assistance to Pakistan be used to block the ‘deal’
Much of this comment aimed at building a momentum of opinion to urge the US to take a tougher position. While Washington said it would seek “clarification” from Beijing about the two new reactors, it has – thus far – avoided pressing the issue. US officials did not raise the issue with Pakistan in the strategic dialogue underway in Islamabad which has a specific track dedicated to nuclear issues.
The reason the US has taken this stance is not hard to fathom. Having concluded a sweeping civilian nuclear deal with India, which was finalised this March, the US is hardly in a position to make a big deal out of this and actively oppose such cooperation between China and Pakistan.
In fact, the more Washington protests the more its own double standards are exposed to the non-nuclear weapons states. Moreover as some in the nuclear non-proliferation lobby in Washington have acknowledged the US may object but it “cannot prevent China from exporting these reactors”.
The Obama administration has continued to desist from going beyond seeking “clarifications” from China. The disappointment this produced in Indian official circles as reflected in their media has been palpable. Delhi has made no secret of its opposition to the deal. Its behind-the-scenes lobbying has also been evident from a spate of leaked stories. Mimicking the US stance, Indian officials have been publicly saying they are calling for “clarifications” from Beijing. This provoked a rebuke last week from the spokesman of Pakistan’s foreign office in which he said Indian demands for clarifications are unwarranted.
Attempts in the Indian media to depict Pakistan-China civilian nuclear cooperation as a “counter” to the Indo-US pact and equate the two are deliberately misleading and spurious. The latter deal has global scope and enables India to gain global access to nuclear material and technology as well as assured fuel supply from whichever supplier nation lines up for commercial advantage.
The NSG waiver in fact opened the way for a veritable nuclear souk with eight countries signing agreements with India and Japan about to begin negotiations. While Pakistan-China cooperation is bilateral and consistent with international legality, the US-India deal undermined the legal norm set by the NPT and violated the NSG’s very raison d’etre by making a country-based exemption.
Pakistan-China cooperation rests on solid legal ground. It is part of continuing collaboration under an agreement that was general and generic. And as it predates China joining the NSG it does not in any way compromise its international obligations.
Moreover, the two additional power plants will be under full International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and supervision. This makes the proliferation argument advanced against the supply patently specious. Much of the comment in the Western press deliberately omitted this fact.
It is because these objections lack legal and moral validity that China and Pakistan have reacted coolly to them. In a series of statements the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has said pithily that the nuclear energy cooperation between Pakistan and China is for peaceful purposes in line with international obligations and under IAEA safeguards.
Meanwhile efforts were made last month to turn an NSG meeting concerned with technical issues into one focusing on the China-Pakistan ‘deal’. The meeting in New Zealand of the 46-nation cartel that monitors nuclear transactions did not take up formal consideration of the matter. But the issue was apparently raised informally by the US, Switzerland and Norway by way of “seeking information.” China simply reiterated at the meeting that its civilian cooperation with Pakistan was in accordance with its international commitments.
Disappointment over this was evident from reports in the Indian press. Leaks that Indian officials are “wary” of the stance taken by the NSG have been accompanied by indications that Delhi will try and build up diplomatic momentum by making “quiet representation” to “friends”.
These efforts are unlikely to go anywhere. And if there is any expectation on Delhi’s part or among well known lobbies in the US and Europe that pressure by leaks and flanking maneuvers will urge Beijing to revise its position then they understand the Chinese even less than they think they do.
Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom.