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China N-bomb ticks

Washington, Nov. 19: The much-publicised controversy over Arunachal Pradesh last week is unlikely to figure at all in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s impending talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao in New Delhi, but the Indo-US nuclear deal will be on top of the agenda for their talks.

That is because in typical Chinese doublespeak, Beijing has effectively decided to block approval for the deal in its present form at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) even as Hu will tell the Prime Minister that his country fully backs India’s right to civilian nuclear energy.

According to US officials who have discussed planned changes to NSG rules with the Chinese and closely monitored progress at the NSG on the deal with India, Beijing has finalised its stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal ahead of Hu’s trip to India after long deliberations at the highest echelons of party and government.

China’s decision is to follow a two-track approach to changing the NSG rules, which is a pre-condition for sale of nuclear technology or equipment to India by any country.

On the one hand, Beijing will agree with the US at the NSG that the rules for global nuclear commerce need changes. At the same time, the Chinese will argue that such changes should be criteria-based and should not be a one-country exception for India just because, as the Chinese see it, President George W. Bush likes India and is, therefore, willing to overlook India’s steadfast refusal to abide by the existing global non-proliferation regime.

Non-proliferation activists here, who have their ear to the ground on this issue, also confirm this latest development.

What is spelt out in public on this issue during or at the end of Hu’s visit to Delhi will very much depend on what is actually said between the Chinese President and the Prime Minister and how it is said.

During his last visit to Beijing as foreign secretary, Shyam Saran asked the Chinese several questions about how they viewed the Indo-US nuclear deal. They were evasive in their answers.

But it is now expected that Hu will tell Singh that China supports India’s desire to conclude civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with states which are acknowledged as nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

The moot point is how Hu will also convey his government’s view that such agreements should conform to global non-proliferation norms and advance arms control.

India and the US are committed, in practice, under their nuclear deal to change the global norms on non-proliferation, although they have put out the spin that their agreement strengthens non-proliferation.

China, on the other hand, is committed to preserving those very norms — unless changes are based on rules, not on the behaviour of one country, essentially judged in Washington.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that he will be hard put to counter Hu’s arguments in support of the Chinese stand.

That is because the Chinese have cooperated with India on civilian nuclear energy in the past, during times when the US stubbornly refused to do so.

It is generally forgotten in India that Beijing supplied nuclear fuel to the Tarapur reactors more than a decade ago, but strictly under the NSG guidelines and the regulations under the current non-proliferation regime.

The Chinese could, therefore, retort that their stand is based on principles, also pointing out that for at least a decade, they have stood by assurances given to the US and other countries about not aiding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by countries which are not signatories to the NPT.

That includes Pakistan: significant help to Islamabad’s weapons programme predates Chinese assurances given to officials and cabinet members of the Clinton administration that such help would be discontinued.

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