China's agreement to help Pakistan build two nuclear power plants is prompting warnings that the new US-India civilian nuclear deal is already pushing other countries to pursue their own nuclear relationships.
The concern among South Asia experts and nonproliferation advocates is that the American deal allowing India to pursue an expanded civilian nuclear program with limited safeguards is prompting other countries in a volatile region to seek a similar deal – something the US had said would not happen.
"You can't help but hear about China supplying Pakistan with nuclear power plants and see it as a reaction to the US-India deal," says Michael Krepon, a South Asia nuclear proliferation expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. "Pakistan is desperate for energy, as is India, but there are lower-cost and shorter-timeline options for producing it, so there is something else going on here and in the Middle East."
That "something else" – whether a result of Iran pursuing a nuclear program it claims is peaceful or Saudi Arabia talking nuclear power with the US – is a regional scramble to counterbalance the nuclear plans of often untrusted neighbors. In the case of Pakistan, it's the pursuit of a counterweight to offset the expanding US-India strategic partnership – particularly in the nuclear realm – through a similar, though less ambitious, partnership with China.
Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told reporters after the visit that Chinese officials are sympathetic to Pakistan's concerns about the "discriminatory nature" of the US-India deal. He suggested China, Pakistan's longtime ally, was acting partly in the interest of a balance of power in South Asia.
US had claimed no nuclear race
Still, the announcement left many questions unanswered, regional analysts say, including how Pakistan would pay for the projects when it is in a deep economic crisis and seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund to avoid defaulting on billions of dollars in debt.
Mr. Zardari returned to Islamabad without the billions in loans he is believed to have sought from China, so speculation has arisen that the nuclear deal was something of a consolation prize. "It could be a political fig leaf, since Zardari didn't get the financial package he wanted, or China could be legitimately concerned about the US-India deal, it's hard to know," says Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
What is clear, he says, is that the US-India deal – which gives India, once a nuclear pariah for refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, access to international nuclear technology and to fuel for nuclear power plants – is having an "I-want-some-too" impact. "The US-India deal makes it harder for the US to argue that countries like China shouldn't pursue nuclear trade with a country like Pakistan," Mr. Wolfsthal says.
As it pressed earlier this year for international approval of its pact with India from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – an assembly of countries that seeks to control proliferation of nuclear weapons by limiting export of nuclear fuel and materials – the US made the case that India had been a responsible steward of its nuclear materials and had earned special treatment.
US officials on various occasions have stressed that the deal would not open the door to a nuclear race in South Asia or anywhere else. In Delhi last month, US ambassador to India, David Mulford, responded to a journalist's query by saying that there was "no possibility" that China would seek a similar deal with Pakistan.
Of course, China might not seek approval from the NSG for its deal with Pakistan, some experts say. Instead, it might claim the deal is grandfathered under its earlier nuclear agreements with Pakistan. Another possibility: Having acquiesced as part of the NSG to the US-India deal, China might seek approval of its Pakistan deal to test how far the group would go in discriminating between countries.
Some nonproliferation advocates worry that the China-Pakistan deal – and the international silence that has met the announcement so far – could suggest that determination to control nuclear proliferation is weakening.
"India's silence suggests, if anything, that they are smiling on this, so the question is, why?" says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "One answer may be that they are more interested in trashing the international restrictions and the Nuclear Suppliers Group that limit them, than in denying Pakistan access to reactors."
Still, he says that does not explain why US officials and members of Congress who questioned the deal with India have remained mum.
The Stimson Center's Mr. Krepon says he would not expect India to "beat the drums on this" for a number of reasons. One, he says, is that India would expect the China-Pakistan deal to go to the NSG, and would anticipate the group putting tighter restrictions on Pakistan.
He adds that, contrary to the US-promoted notion, India "does not have a blemish-free record" on proliferation. But he says Pakistan's is "worse," with Exhibit A being the A.Q. Khan network of clandestine nuclear exports.
At the same time Krepon says India can hardly jump to the attack on a deal that comes on the heels of its own success with nuclear powers. "It's in India's interest to maintain its own freedom of action," he says. "They got a sweetheart deal."
Another explanation for India's silence has more to do with its vision of itself as a rising global power that is now playing on a different field from its traditional rival next door. "On one level," says CSIS's Wolfsthal, "the Indians are saying 'We're not going to respond to everything the Pakistanis do, we're playing at the big boys' table now.' "