The race for influence in South Asia is taking a nuclear turn.
In recent days, reports have emerged that both the United States and China are prepared to alter the nuclear establishment in order to curry favor with South Asia's two powers: India and Pakistan.
The American offer was expected. The keystone of President Bush's longstanding efforts to expand ties with India is a deal to share civilian nuclear technology, which the Senate passed Friday. What has come as more of a surprise is a report that China is preparing to give similar help to Pakistan.
The game of nuclear brinksmanship comes as Chinese President Hu Jintao spends this week between Delhi and Islamabad, where he will look to reaffirm ties with China's old ally, Pakistan, and to forge new ones with its erstwhile enemy, India.
It marks open season for courtship on the subcontinent, in which the US and China are willing to rewrite the rule book for nuclear nonproliferation – offering nuclear know-how to two countries that built nuclear-weapons programs in defiance of the international community – in order to outflank each other in a regional power play.
"With the US using India to checkmate China, China will counter by supporting Pakistan," says Kaiser Bengali, an analyst in Karachi. "Using the nuclear card is a new phenomenon."
It is a tactic that causes considerable consternation, both in the United States and elsewhere. Though both nuclear deals are confined to civilian nuclear technology, both India and Pakistan have distanced themselves from the international nuclear regime in order to build their nuclear-weapons programs. That means they have not agreed to the same rules for nonproliferation.
Yet just as the decades-old international regime of nuclear checks and balances has failed to deal with the challenges of Iran and North Korea, it has similarly failed to account for the growing clout of India and Pakistan, who have become established – though unofficial – nuclear powers.
These latest gambits, then, are merely efforts by the US and China to advance their agendas amid this new reality – offering India and Pakistan the sheen of nuclear legitimacy in return for greater strategic and economic ties.
The result, however, is another example of how the old nuclear order is falling into disarray. "This is a sign of chaos," says Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There is no gameplan."
The US has placated critics by demanding transparency from the Indians. According to the terms of the agreement signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, American technology and fuel can be used only in civilian nuclear facilities, and these facilities must be open to international inspectors.
The House passed the agreement this summer. Now, after the Senate's approval last week, it awaits a vote before the full Congress.
With regard to Pakistan, only a Reuters report released last week offers any potential specifics, suggesting that later this week President Hu will announce China's intention to help Pakistan build six civilian reactors.
So far, the Pakistani government has denied this report. But experts and Pakistani officials confirm China's general intention to help build Pakistan's civilian nuclear-power program in the future. Ashfaq Hassan Khan, an economic adviser to Pakistan's Finance Ministry, says China will play a central role in Pakistan's intention to increase its nuclear energy to 8,000 megawatts by 2025.
It should come as no surprise. While India and China have often been at odds – and sometimes at war – China and Pakistan have formed one of the world's most durable and overlooked alliances during the past 40 years. China has emerged as Pakistan's largest arms supplier, selling everything from aircraft to missiles to naval vessels. In return, the Chinese have nurtured Pakistan as a loyal counterweight to India and as an access route to Central Asian and Middle Eastern energy, which the Chinese desperately need, given their exploding energy demands.
To that end, China is developing a major port on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, from which Persian Gulf oil will flow back to the Chinese interior. Pakistan, however, also needs energy, with its power demands expected to double by 2015. Already, China helped Pakistan build a 300-megawatt nuclear reactor in 1999.
But Pakistan turned to the US in hopes of getting the same deal that the US gave to India. When Pakistan was rebuffed amid concerns over security, it turned to its old standby. China has often taken a lead role in Pakistan's nuclear adventures.
China provided Pakistan with some of its first nuclear technology in the 1960s, and its continuing help has been seen as crucial in Pakistan's development and test of the bomb in 1998. China is also considered to have been a principal enabler for Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former head of Pakistan's nuclear program, who sold nuclear secrets around the world.
"Chinese cooperation with Pakistan is irresponsible, but it always has been," says Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "China has still not figured out where nonproliferation fits into its strategic policy."
China's dealings with India are far more uncertain. A report in The Boston Globe suggested that China was on the verge of signing a civilian nuclear deal with India similar to India's deal with the US. (The Monitor was unable to independently verify this report before press time.)
That fact has not gone unnoticed in India, which still looks at China with a wary eye. Despite significant progress in the area of economic cooperation, India has refused to open the door to China too wide.
President Hu is expected to push for free-trade rights for Chinese businesses in India on his trip. He isn't expected to get it. China's role as armory to India's sworn enemy is only part of the rub. Recently, China announced a plan to dam the mighty Brahmaputra River just before it reaches the Indian border. Also, in 1962, India was roundly defeated in a brief border war with China, though it managed to hold on to its territory. Yet China still claims an entire Indian state as its own – the Chinese ambassador to India went so far as to openly claim China's ownership of Arunachal Pradesh earlier this month.