China-Pakistan deal raises fears of nuclear proliferation

China’s plan to build two nuclear reactors in Pakistan has prompted concern about nuclear proliferation. The two nations may aim to counter mutual rival India, which signed a nuclear deal with the US last year.

Chinese President Hu Jintao attends a plenary session of the fourth summit of the Group of 20 (G20), in Toronto, Canada, June 27. A China-Pakistan nuclear deal has raised concerns in the region.

A $2.4 billion nuclear reactor deal between China and Pakistan aimed at reducing Pakistan’s chronic energy shortage has cast light on the decades-old strategic partnership that Chinese President Hu Jintao described as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans.”

The agreement, announced last week, would see the construction two 650-Megawatt nuclear reactors, and it reaffirms the longtime alliance between the two nations particularly as their shared rival India and the United States also deepen ties.

But the proposed deal reignites concerns surrounding Pakistan’s history of nuclear proliferation – most notably through its former top nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who confessed in 2004 to leaking nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

Beijing has repeatedly dismissed such concerns. “Civilian nuclear energy cooperation between China and Pakistan is completely in line with international obligations of nonproliferation, and is completely for peaceful purposes,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Tuesday. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari will make his fifth official visit to China next week.

Fears of proliferation

Nonetheless, the agreement has caused concern particularly in the United States and India. Although the two signed their own landmark civilian nuclear deal in 2005, they did so after gaining an exemption by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a group of 46 member countries that oversee the export of nuclear technology.

The NSG cautions against sharing nuclear technology with countries that have a record of proliferation, as Pakistan does, or that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Neither India nor Pakistan has signed the NPT, but India was granted a waiver after undergoing international inspections.

“The Indian example is not a precedent since India’s exemption had to go through the US legislative scrutiny and the NSG exemption,” wrote K Subrahmanyam in the Times of India. “Pakistan cannot compare its non-proliferation record with that of India. The exoneration of A.Q. Khan by the judiciary of charges of unauthorized nuclear trade clearly implies that Pakistani proliferation had the approval of successive governments in Islamabad.”

Last month, the US State Department sought to “clarify” details of the arrangement, while iterating nations’ obligations to nonproliferation.

China claims the two reactors were in the pipeline before it joined the NSG in 2004 and should thus be exempted.

What China wants

Pakistan sought a similar nuclear deal from the US in 2005, but was denied. “Pakistan and India are different countries with different needs and different histories,” then-President Bush said at the time.

On Wednesday, however, US joint chiefs of staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen sought to down play the idea that Pakistan is a loose cannon when it comes to nuclear proliferation. Unlike Iran and North Korea, he said, Pakistan makes "extraordinary efforts" to protect its arsenal.

“These are the most important weapons in the Pakistani arsenal. That is understood by the leadership, and they go to extraordinary efforts to protect and secure them. These are their crown jewels,” HE said.

Pakistan may have turned to its long-term ally and sponsor China as a result, says Anatol Lieven a Pakistan analyst at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.

“Traditionally, the Pakistani establishment has in the back of its mind that it can play China off against the US,” he says.

The deal would double the number of Pakistan’s civilian nuclear reactors, and help it ease an energy shortfall of about 3,000 Megawatts, or 17 percent of demand.

China may be eager to cement an alternative power nexus in the region, and gain one-up on regional rival India according to Christine Fair, a security analyst at Georgetown University.

Pakistan and China have maintained good relations for six decades. In 1951 Pakistan was among the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China founded in two years earlier by the Communist party, which still governs China today.

China has steadily supplied arms to Pakistan over the decades – motivated in part to curtail India's power – and is widely believed to have helped develop its nuclear weapons program. It is also the biggest investor in Pakistan’s new Gwadar Deep Sea Port.

At the same time China has avoided the financial commitments to Pakistan that the US has made, most recently in its $7.5 billion aid package. It refused President Zardari’s request for a financial bailout in late 2008. And, despite its military support, China refused to aid Pakistan during its 1999 Kargil conflict with India.

“It benefits China that India and Pakistan are locked into this security complex even though it’s not in their interest that it comes to blows,” Ms. Fair says, adding that China is likely to seek a quid pro quo in terms of commercial opportunities in Pakistan.

US’s loss?

Fair believes the US may have missed a “key opportunity” to forge its own conditions-based nuclear deal, which would give the US greater leverage to force Pakistan to crack down on domestic militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, and mend relations between the two countries. The US has grown frustrated in recent months at Pakistan’s unwillingness to tackle the Haqqani militant group based in its northwestern tribal area of North Waziristan.

A report published this week by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, makes a similar case, noting that a US-Pakistan nuclear deal could be “biggest game changer in terms of public perception” in Pakistan.

“That will treat it on par with neighbor India,” the report said. “But at the same time begin to draw it into the safeguards network of the International Atomic Energy Agency and thereby dissuade it from any recidivist tendencies toward proliferation.”

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