China’s Plans to Provide Pakistan With More Nuclear Reactors Raises Proliferation Concerns

By Patrick Goodenough | June 24, 2010 | 4:16 AM EDT

Pakistan’s Chashma I nuclear reactor in Punjab. (Photo: Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission Web site)

( – China on Thursday was set to announce that it will provide Pakistan with more nuclear reactors – plans that could prove difficult to thwart because of what some countries regard as a precedent set by the United States two years ago.

The announcement was expected to come at an annual meeting in New Zealand of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose 46 member-nations seek to control the export of nuclear-related materials to prevent proliferation.

The U.S. has signaled that it will not support the plan. Earlier, concerns were raised that it may not stand in China’s way, in exchange for Beijing’s cooperation on the imposition of more U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.

China already has built two reactors in Punjab province for its longstanding strategic ally – Chashma I, which is operating, and Chashma II, which is due to go online next year. Now it wants to build two more alongside them, Chashma III and IV.

As a non-signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Pakistan should not benefit from nuclear trade, according to NSG guidelines.

But the NSG in 2008 agreed to make an exception, at Washington’s behest, to allow a civilian nuclear cooperation deal between the U.S. and India, which is also not an NPT signatory.

Demanding similar treatment for Pakistan, China will run into hurdles, given nuclear-armed Pakistan’s history.

Supporters of the exemption for India maintained that it deserved the break because, despite having developed a nuclear weapons program of its own, it has a clean record on non-proliferation.

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan waves to media at his home in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, Feb. 6, 2009. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)

Pakistan, in contrast, accounted for the worst acknowledged case of proliferation in history – the black-market ring headed by the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who admitted sharing nuclear technology with Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Although not a member of the NSG India, Pakistan’s neighbor and longstanding rival, has been quietly lobbying members to oppose the China-Pakistan deal. Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters Tuesday the government was “closely monitoring” the debate.

Ahead of Thursday’s NSG meeting, observers including Mark Hibbs of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had expected China could approach the issue in several possible ways:

-- Follow Washington’s example and apply for an exemption for Islamabad.

-- Argue that the planned reactors were linked to and “grandfathered” by an agreement it had with Pakistan before China joined the NSG in 2004 and therefore were exempt from the NSG guidelines which it agreed to abide by when it entered the group.

-- Ignore the guidelines, which in any case are non-binding, and even threaten to leave the NSG.

Exemption will be an uphill battle

When the U.S., supported by other members including Britain, France and Japan, led the campaign to have the NSG agree to an exemption for India, not all members were enthusiastic. At meetings in Vienna in the summer of 2008 a small group including New Zealand and Ireland held out for conditions.

China – ironically, given the recent developments – was itself not keen on the exemption application, warning through its mouthpiece People’s Daily that it would deal a blow to international non-proliferation efforts.

NSG decisions require consensus. Agreement eventually came as a result of a combination of heavy U.S. lobbying and India’s agreement to submit a formal statement reaffirming its commitment to non-proliferation.

If winning an exemption for India was difficult, China will have it work cut out in getting a similar waiver for Pakistan.

After the NSG in September 2008 finally agreed to the India deal, Australia’s foreign minister during a visit to New Delhi attributed the success, in part, to India’s global status.

“If such a request was made for another country, I don’t think it would have been cleared by the NSG members,” Stephen Smith said.

The rationale for the NSG guidelines is that since non-NPT parties are not restricted from transferring nuclear technology to a third party, any atomic or dual-use items sold to them for use in their civilian programs could end up in the hands of states looking to develop nuclear weapons.

“The argument that the China-Pakistan nuclear reactor deal should be seen in the same light as the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal discounts the vastly different proliferation records of Pakistan and India, the different oversight requirements generally imposed by the U.S. compared to China, and the prevalence of Pakistan-based terrorist groups seeking nuclear weapons technology,” Heritage Foundation scholars Lisa Curtis and Nicholas Hamisevicz said last month.

Chinese experts reject the third-party proliferation concerns.

“This is not the first time China has helped Pakistan build nuclear reactors, and since it will be watched by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the deal is not going to have any problems,” Zhai Dequan of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, a non-governmental organization, told China Daily on Wednesday.

In this April 5, 2009, file photo speaking in Prague, President Barack Obama calls for a world free of nuclear weapons. Five months later there is little indication Obama will have the votes he needs for a cornerstone of his nonproliferation efforts: the Senate ratification of a nuclear test ban treaty. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Dubious argument

Pakistan’s Chashma I reactor project was approved well before China joined the NSG in June 2004. The Chashma II agreement was finalized just three weeks before China entered the group.

But Beijing and Islamabad are now arguing that III and IV do also not violate the NSG guidelines because they form part of the original agreements for the Punjab site, which pre-dated China’s NSG entry.

“We do not need an exemption from the NSG, as requested by the U.S. [in India’s case], since the [China-Pakistan] deal was reached before we joined the group,” China Daily quoted Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Fan Jishe as saying.

Critics believe the argument is dubious because although China at the time of joining the NSG declared Chashma II, there was no mention back then of a third and fourth planned reactor.

“We have asked China to clarify the details of its sale of additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told a recent briefing. “This appears to extend beyond cooperation that was grandfathered when China was approved for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.”

In a letter this week to all 46 NSG members, more than 40 signatories ranging from proliferation experts and peace and disarmament campaigners made the same point.

“When China joined the NSG in 2004, it had already built a power reactor at Pakistan’s Chashma site. It claimed at the time that it was entitled to build a second one on the grounds that the second reactor project was covered in its existing agreement with Pakistan,” the letter said.

“There was no declaration at that time of any intention to build additional nuclear power plants at Chashma. Chinese construction of additional nuclear power plants in Pakistan beyond what was grandfathered in 2004 would be inconsistent with NSG guidelines and China’s commitments to the NSG.”

The letter, which was coordinated by the Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA), appealed to the NSG members to “oppose nuclear trade by any state with Pakistan.”

“We urge your government to reiterate to the Chinese government that it must not engage in nuclear trade with Pakistan in a way that violates nonproliferation obligations and norms.”

Apart from the concern that nuclear trade with a non-NPT country could result in proliferation to third parties, experts also contend that providing nuclear items for civilian use could free up existing resources that could benefit weapons programs.

“The provision of uranium and/or nuclear fuel to Pakistan or India for safeguarded reactors can have the effect of increasing their respective capacity to produce enriched uranium or plutonium for weapons purposes in unsafeguarded facilities,” said the letter to NSG members.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow