Millennium Post

Behold the other nuclear nexus

The China-Pakistan cooperation on nuclear issues was established from the time Pakistan began its nuclear programme. Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact start date of this cooperation, a testament by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto suggests that cooperation in the nuclear arena began in 1976 between the two countries.

At a time when the western powers had put in place stringent export control mechanisms making it nearly impossible for Pakistan to acquire nuclear technology and material, it was China that staunchly supported Pakistan’s nuclear endeavours and helped build infrastructure. This move has made China an integral and important part of Pakistan’s over all nuclear development.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, China has been providing Pakistan with missile and nuclear related aid through warhead designs, weapons-grade uranium and other forms of assistance. China also supported Pakistan’s ballistic missile programme and the construction of a deep seaport at the naval base in Gwadar. However, it was in 1986 that China and Pakistan signed an agreement for nuclear cooperation. The Comprehensive Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of 1986 between China and Pakistan stated that China would by 2011 construct four nuclear reactors in Pakistan.

In 1991, China helped Pakistan build its reactor, Chashma-I, in the Punjab province. The plant was designed by the Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute. A US Department of Defence report published in 2001 acknowledged China’s contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear programme in terms of construction, expertise, material and critical assistance.

In May 2004, China again signed a contract to build Chashma-2 in Pakistan. The timing of this was crucial as it was at the same time that China’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was under consideration. China argued that Chashma-2 was built on the basis of a pre-existing contract and would therefore not be liable to come under full scope safeguards. While this issue became a matter of debate in the international community, it was largely uncontested under the grandfather clause of the NSG.

However, when in 2009, China National Nuclear Corporation signed an agreement for Chashma-3 and -4; it raised alarm among the NSG members and others. China once again argued that the agreement for these two reactors had in fact been made under the same agreement that allowed for the construction of Chashma-1 and -2, thereby once again citing the grandfather clause as a shield against any objection to this deal.

The US is not buying into this argument and has repeatedly urged China to seek a waiver if it wants to continue its assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Analysts have been debating the implications of putting pressure on China to seek such a waiver. If China were to opt out of the NSG, it would cause worry and raise concerns across the globe with more than 60 percent of the world’s reactors currently under construction in China.

China’s exit from the NSG could well mark the start of a fast growing and probably impermeable black market. Therefore pressurizing China has to be done with caution so as to ensure its continued membership in the NSG.

Earlier this year, China agreed to assist Pakistan in building Chashma-5. The construction of this reactor would be the third after China’s inclusion into the NSG which is undoubtedly a cause for concern in both India and other parts of the world. While Chashma-3 and -4 were passed as being a part of a pre-existing agreement, there is no such agreement stating the allowance of Chashma-5.

China is now defending its stand with the argument that the reactor will be used for peaceful purposes and does not violate the rules of the NSG. China has also stated that construction of the reactor will be under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

While the US has made its displeasure to the China-Pakistan growing cooperation known, the current geopolitical calculus makes it difficult to put any pressure on China to break the deal. China is one of the biggest trading partners to the US. At the same time, Pakistan is playing host to drone bases for the US. There is also a growing concern that any move to upset China may weaken Chinese support to the UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme.

In the light of these facts, it is difficult to obtain a balanced solution to China’s Chashma deal. However, the Obama administration’s restrained opposition to the Chashma issue may embolden China to take similar steps in future.

India for its part has been objecting to the Chashma-5 deal since the news of the agreement was out. However, analysts believe that Chashma-5 may not be as much a source of worry for India as it appears.

This fifth reactor is positioned to be a light water reactor unlikely to be used for military purposes. In the current scenario India can only voice its dissent for the growing China-Pakistan nuclear nexus. China has rubbished India’s concerns citing Pakistan’s increasing energy crunch as one of the main purposes of assisting Pakistan with civil nuclear energy. Under this pretext China may well be guiding Pakistan on its way to nuclear parity with India.

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