DIFFERING STANDARDS - The US must not wink at a Sino-Pak nuclear deal

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By Kanwal Sibal The author is former foreign secretary of India sibalkanwal@gmail.com
  • Published 20.07.10
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China’s decision to sell two additional nuclear power reactors to Pakistan has dimensions that need to be better understood. China is persisting with its internationally destabilizing proliferation activity. It transferred nuclear materials and nuclear weapon technology to Pakistan in the 1980s. When it joined the non-proliferation treaty in 1992, it subjected itself to the treaty’s discipline of abjuring any nuclear cooperation with a non-NPT State like Pakistan. It took care, however, to protect its ongoing civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan by “grandfathering” — that is, treating it as a prior commitment it would adhere to — the Chashma-1 nuclear power plant. When it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004, the non-proliferation discipline became even stricter as the NSG’s guidelines prohibit nuclear cooperation with any country that has not accepted full-scope safeguards, that is, placed its entire nuclear programme under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which implies, in effect, the elimination of any weapons programme. However, not willing to end all its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, and widely suspected of providing a convenient cover to assist Pakistan in its weapons-related programme, China “grandfathered” the Chashma-2 reactor. It did not at that time claim any prior commitment to build Chashma-3 and Chashma-4 reactors. Any plea now that these two power plants have also been “grandfathered” would be unsustainable. Further cooperation by China with Pakistan would be in violation of the non-proliferation obligations that China has voluntarily accepted.

China’s transfer of nuclear weapon technology and materials to Pakistan was a deeply hostile act towards India. China’s political objective was to strategically neutralize India in its own region by propping up Pakistan with nuclear capacity so that the latter could pursue its confrontationist policies without fear of military reprisals by a conventionally superior India. The extent of China’s involvement in Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear programme and its extended consequences were brought out dramatically by the A.Q. Khan affair. Khan himself has revealed the intimacy of the nuclear links between the two countries in making available to Pakistan fissile material and weapons designs and so on. It is widely believed that Pakistan’s nuclear programme is being sustained with Chinese technological and material help. Pakistan needs natural uranium, replacement of spare parts for its nuclear reactors, technological back-up for its plutonium reprocessing plant and so on, which China, as Pakistan’s all-weather friend, supplies.

China’s opposition to the India-United States of America nuclear deal on the ground that it violated the NPT and created a bad precedent was an exercise in unmitigated hypocrisy. China was putting on the mantle of an NPT loyalist and objecting to an openly debated process at the national and international levels that involved enactment of an elaborate US legislation incorporating all material non-proliferation concerns and establishing tight international parameters of the nuclear arrangement with India, even as China itself shields North Korea from the full consequences of its nuclear defiance and refuses to be answerable for the subterranean elements of its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan.

China’s attempt to place India and Pakistan in the same eligibility category for international civilian nuclear cooperation shows the degree of its political and strategic commitment to Pakistan, and its underlying anti-India animus. Does China think that Pakistan’s internal situation, with rampaging religious extremism and terrorism, justifies the decision to expand nuclear cooperation with it? If there is international concern that with rising Islamist affiliations within the Pakistani armed forces, Pakistan’s nuclear materials and assets could become potentially vulnerable; does China think such concern is misplaced? Does it make sense to China to expand the nuclear base of Pakistan when the situation in the Af-Pak region remains highly unstable and uncertain, with widespread military action being conducted on the ground by foreign and local armed forces?

China’s anti-Indian rationale for advocating a nuclear deal with Pakistan has surfaced in several of its public statements. It has accused the US of playing favourites with India and of discrimination in South Asia. More important, it has criticized the US for creating a nuclear imbalance in South Asia by the Indo-US nuclear deal, and advocates a similar deal with Pakistan to rectify it. Through such distorted projections, China and Pakistan are giving currency to the canard that the Indo-US deal will enable India to increase its weapons production rate, promote an arms race in the subcontinent, and increase the chances of a nuclear conflict between two long-term adversaries. It is instructive that China should use the security argument to justify the deal with Pakistan, for it implies that China sees it not as a ‘civilian’ initiative but as a military one. China wants to build up its protégé Pakistan against any strengthening of India perceived as US’s new protégé.

The US reaction to China’s new nuclear plans for Pakistan is most disturbing. For weeks, US reports prepared international opinion for a tepid American response to this frontal Chinese challenge to the non-proliferation regime and the NSG. It was speculated that the US and China had struck a deal under which China would support US-led sanctions against Iran in the security council against the US’s condoning of the Sino-Pakistan nuclear deal. It was also conveniently argued that the NSG guidelines were not legally binding, and that if China was bent on going ahead the US could do precious little, especially at this juncture of financial dependence on China. Not surprisingly, in a travesty of facts, the blame for creating such a situation was placed on the failure of the Bush administration to secure any non-proliferation concessions from India. The anti-India US non-proliferationists found a way to blame India for the Sino-Pakistan deal.

From India’s point of view, the US has to be most answerable if China and Pakistan get away with their deal without a condign response from the international community. The Indo-US nuclear deal was accompanied by stringent non-proliferation conditions, some at the cost of our sovereignty and dignity. India had to subject itself to a prolonged US legislative process with all the political sensitivities of having to fend off the extra-territorial application of US laws, besides having to undergo a supplicatory diplomatic exercise with NSG members to obtain their consent. If, as the Chinese argue, they and Pakistan are respecting their international obligations and the new power plants will be under IAEA safeguards, where was the need for India to be put in the wringer of a tortuous, conditions-laden process by the US? Why did the US pressure others not to cooperate with India until the US cleared the way? We too could have obtained nuclear cooperation by simply agreeing to put internationally assisted reactors under IAEA safeguards. The US cannot have different standards for China/Pakistan and for us. Like China, the US, too, has supported over the years ‘strategic stability’ in South Asia. It has overlooked in the past Sino-Pakistan nuclear transfers as it needed Pakistan’s support for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and was reluctant to impose sanctions on China. History is in danger of repeating itself at India’s expense again. India must convey suitably to the US that the newly established strategic relationship with it will develop a huge fissure if it sacrifices India’s interests to protect its Sino-Pakistan relationship.