On 9th February, Wang Xiaotao, an official of the National Development and Reform Commission, confirmed that China is involved in six nuclear power projects in Pakistan. While it is known that China was one of the main supporters of Pakistan’s efforts at improving her nuclear energy infrastructure, this was the first time that the full extent of her involvement was publicly disclosed.
The announcement was met with concern, specifically over whether or not it contravened the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s (NSG) guidelines, of which China is party to. Are such concerns justified? Given the ever pressing need of building a stable energy infrastructure in Pakistan, how should the international community respond?
Let us first examine the causes for concern. The six reactors, which have a total installed capacity of 3.4 million kW, are seen by some as occurring outside of what the NSG Guidelines permit. Both Pakistan and India are not party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Under NSG Guidelines, which aims at ensuring that ‘nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices’, parties to the Guidelines are not allowed to export nuclear materials to countries that are not party to the NPT.
China and Pakistan cooperated on Chashma 1 and 2 before the former joined the NSG in 2004. The NSG Guidelines therefore cannot be applied to these projects. However, further cooperation such as this one should technically come under the jurisdiction of the NSG. China’s response was twofold. First, these projects were ‘grandfathered’ as part of the Chashma 1 and 2 agreements, and thus were not under the jurisdiction of the NSG. Second, the deals were under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and were thus legitimate.
Such legal footwork, combined with the two countries’ track records in non-proliferation, seems to warrant concern. Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan illicit nuclear network was revealed in 2004 to have aided North Korea, Libya and Iran. China, whose overall conduct is mostly in accordance with the NPT, was implicated in the same scandal, where nuclear designs were passed to Libya through Pakistan.
I argue that while such factors do warrant concern, they are a part of a bigger picture of geopolitical balancing between China and the US in the sub-continent. I claim that this is not a stable road follow, due to the unique features in the sub-continent.
Immediately before China’s announcement, President Barack Obama and President Narendra Modi of India reached a ‘breakthrough understanding’ on 25th January that would ‘open India’s nuclear power sector to U.S. firms’. Similar to the Chinese-Pakistan deal, this only concerned civilian nuclear energy, and was made between an NSG party state and a non-NPT party state. (Incidentally, the only non-signatories of the NPT are India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan)
In both cases, whether or not ‘building assistance’ implies the exchange of dual-use knowledge of material is irrelevant. What matters is how each side perceived such agreements. Indeed, in a state-run Xinhua commentary, the author dismisses Obama’s three day visit as ‘more symbolic than pragmatic’. The timing of Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharif to China in the immediate wake of Obama’s visit was no coincidence either.
That said, the overall situation in the sub-continent is far from any Cold War standoff. Modi is eager to pursue a multilateral diplomacy that involved building ties with the US and China, and Pakistan remains a strategic partner for the US in her operations in the Middle East.
However, it is plausible to assume that both sides will view such developments in the civilian nuclear sector with military lenses. Such a path will not lead to stability, mainly because the logic of deterrence is hard to apply to the Sub-Continental context.
Unlike the USA and the former USSR, India and Pakistan share a volatile border. For example, the last flare-up in Kashmir in October 2014 led to civilian casualties on both sides. Furthermore, Pakistan’s development of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, such as the short-range Nasr, seems to follow a different logic than strategic nuclear weapons. In other words, the line between nuclear-as-deterrence and nuclear-as-conventional-weapon is blurred.
Under such a context, agreements in even the civilian nuclear sector will raise tensions in the region. That said, Pakistan is in dire need of better energy infrastructure, ‘with regular blackouts of up to ten hours per day in the major cities and twenty hours in rural areas’.
Is it possible to develop civilian infrastructure and achieve non-proliferation simultaneously? The answer should yes; the US and China should agree to play a larger role in pressuring both sides to join the NPT and play a monitoring role. Since both the US and China will be playing a large role in building and operating nuclear power facilities, they have the leverage to give access to international monitors such as the IAEA to such facilities. After all, it is in the interests of both countries to maintain stability in the Sub-Continent. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, China is India’s largest trading partner, and she also requires Pakistan’s cooperation in dealing with Uighur extremists troubling her western regions.
The geopolitics of the region need not be polarised, but it will be if those involved do not make the paradigm shift into multilateral thinking. What happens next remains to be seen—hopefully Pakistan will be able to have both light and peace.