Will the Obama Administration Accept China-Pakistan Nuclear Collaboration?

By Patrick Goodenough | May 21, 2010 | 4:56 AM EDT

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

(CNSNews.com) – Analysts in India and the U.S. are voicing concern that the Obama administration may tolerate a Chinese bid to build new nuclear power reactors in Pakistan, despite Islamabad’s poor non-proliferation record.
Some suspect the stance may be linked to attempts by the U.S. to win Beijing’s support for fresh U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. The U.S. said this week that China had agreed to support a sanctions resolution when a draft text comes up for a vote in the coming weeks.
China already has built one operating nuclear reactor, Chashma I, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, and it is working on a second, Chashma II, which is due to go online next year. Now it wants to build two more alongside them, Chashma III and IV.
On Friday, a Pakistan government financial coordinating committee was expected to approve a Chinese loan of 17.4 billion rupees ($207 million) for Pakistan’s nuclear energy program for 2010-2011, most of which is earmarked for projects III and IV, according to a report in Pakistan’s Daily Times.
According to the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – which seeks to control the export of materials with nuclear applications – nuclear equipment may not be provided to countries that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Pakistan, India and Israel fall into that category.
Chashma I was approved well before China joined the NSG in June 2004, and the Chashma II agreement was finalized three weeks before China’s entry into the group.
But Beijing and Islamabad are now arguing that III and IV do also not violate the NSG guidelines because they part of the original agreements for the Punjab site put in the works before its NSG entry.
After China joined the NSG, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey noted that while it had secured an exemption for Chashma II since the contract was signed prior to its formal induction, “China will be prohibited from undertaking any additional nuclear supply or reactor construction deals with Pakistan.”
Beijing disputes this is the case. Whether the other 45 members of the NSG agree with China’s assessment remains to be seen, but the position that the U.S. takes will be crucial.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari won China’s agreement for Chashma III and IV during his first trip abroad after taking office in September 2008. The Bush administration then notified both China and Pakistan that it objected, saying that Pakistan’s history of proliferation would make it difficult to obtain NSG approval.
(Four years earlier, the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan admitted sharing nuclear know-how with Iran, North Korea and Libya.
President Pervez Musharraf, who pardoned Khan and denied the U.S. access to him, insisted it was a rogue operation with no government or military sanction, a claim widely questioned by proliferation experts.
Khan himself said in 2008 interviews that he had been a scapegoat, alleging that the army supervised the clandestine shipment of nuclear equipment to North Korea in 2000.)
‘Political expediency’
Pakistan’s desire to expand its nuclear sector is closely linked to developments in India, its historical rival. The South Asian neighbors forced their way into the nuclear club in 1998 when they conducted tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests.
Musharraf was incensed when the Bush administration signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with India and then went on to persuade the NSG to grant India a waiver in 2008 allowing the deal to go ahead despite India’s status as a non-NPT signatory.
Claiming that it, too, had urgent energy needs, Pakistan pressed for a similar arrangement, but the U.S. demurred, while offering help for its conventional energy program. During ministerial-level meetings last March, the Obama administration repeated that offer, saying it “recognized the importance of assisting Pakistan to overcome its energy deficit and committed to further intensify and expand comprehensive cooperation in the energy sector.”
A key argument in winning NSG approval for the waiver for India was the fact that New Delhi has a good record on non-proliferation, a claim no-one could convincingly make about Pakistan – least of all China, which is strongly suspected of having helped Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons capability in the first place.
Last week, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said during a Brookings Institution discussion that the U.S. had yet to reach a final conclusion on China’s claims regarding Chashma III and IV and the NSG “but it’s something we’re obviously looking at very carefully.”
“But I think it’s important to scrupulously honor these nonproliferation commitments,” Steinberg added.
Still, some experts in the U.S. and India suspect that the Obama administration may accept the China-Pakistan deal.
In a recent analysis, Mark Hibbs of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that senior officials in U.S.-friendly NSG states believed President Obama may not oppose the transaction because he wants to secure China’s support for sanctions against Iran.
If the U.S. does not object, Hibbs said, “that would signal the United States under Obama was prepared to brush off an important nuclear nonproliferation norm on grounds of political expediency.”
“Since NSG states are awaiting leadership from the United States on how to eventually respond to China’s challenge of the rules, tacit U.S. acquiescence would seriously damage the NSG’s credibility as a rule maker for nuclear trade.”
Hibbs pointed out that even if any NSG state does object, the group has no recourse to stop the exports from going ahead since its guidelines are not legally binding.
Indian doubts
According to Viyyanna Sastry, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, NSG countries would not likely welcome exemptions for Pakistan, “whose proliferation concerns and the A.Q. Khan legacy are fresh in their memory.”
Sastry wrote in a paper that NSG states would look to the U.S. for guidance on the matter. He noted that the U.S. was looking for Chinese support for sanctions against Iran and “simultaneously needs Pakistan in its global fight on terrorism.”
Sastry said India could not do much about the situation now “except to remonstrate with the U.S.,” and predicted a “strong debate in the coming weeks.”
P.R. Chari, a research professor at the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, also voiced doubts about Washington’s position regarding the China-Pakistan reactor agreement.
Noting the U.S. offer of conventional energy assistance to Pakistan made during the recent ministerial-level talks, he wrote last week, “Did the Obama administration also agree to China transferring the reactors to Pakistan, while objecting for the record? Speculative, perhaps? But, the answers to these questions will unfold very shortly.”
Also suspicious is Bahukutumbi Raman, the director of the Institute For Topical Studies in Chennai, India.
“Indications of the Obama administration taking a benign view of China’s military and nuclear co-operation with Pakistan ought to be taken seriously by Indian policy-makers,” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow