New nuke deals send the proliferation regime for a six

With Japan, a long-time critic of India’s bid for nuclear weapons, lining up for deals with New Delhi, and China proposing to offer similar technology to Pakistan, the geopolitical import of the 2008 US-India agreement is becoming clear: Japan, concerned by China’s rise, wants to strengthen India, while China counters the US-India partnership by helping Pakistan. In the process, protecting the nuclear non-proliferation regime has become more complex.

Since the signing of the US-India agreement and special dispensation was granted to India by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or NSG, India has signed civilian nuclear energy pacts with states as diverse as Britain, France, Russia and Canada on the one hand, and Argentina, Kazakhstan, Namibia and Mongolia on the other. The start of negotiations with Japan is the latest in a long line of such agreements.

China announced its own civil nuclear pact with Pakistan earlier this year, though it has yet to receive a waiver from the NSG for selling technology to a country that is not a party to the non-proliferation treaty.

Behind seemingly innocuous agreements of civilian nuclear cooperation, India, Japan, China and Pakistan are engaging in a strategic game that could draw in other countries, complicate the global non-proliferation agenda and raise serious security concerns about Pakistan as a ‘Wal-Mart of illicit’ nuclear technology.

The US-India nuclear pact virtually rewrote the rules of the global nuclear regime by underlining India’s credentials as a responsible nuclear state that should be integrated into the global nuclear order. The pact creates a major exception to the US prohibition of nuclear assistance to any country that does not accept international monitoring of all its nuclear facilities. The unspoken context of the deal was US concern about China’s ascendance in the Asia-Pacific region. Both India and the US realised that to prevent Chinese domination a close partnership was essential. The nuclear deal became the most potent symbol of that rapprochement.

Approval by the NSG allowed India to engage other nuclear powers in civilian trade and provided new market opportunities to major nuclear powers. Even Japan, a strong critic of India’s nuclear policy, decided to fast-track negotiations for a civilian nuclear deal, planning to sign an accord by year-end — the first such agreement between Japan and a country that isn’t a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty.

Japanese nuclear companies are eager for a share of the Indian market. The political symbolism is even more critical. An Indian-Japanese civil nuclear pact would signal an Asian partnership to bring stability to the region at a time when China goes all out to dispense civilian nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

The race

The China-Pakistan nuclear relationship has been the major factor wrecking the foundations of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. China’s nuclear test in 1964 propelled India’s nuclear weaponisation, culminating in India’s ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ in 1974. China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation — involving the sharing of weapon design and missile technology in the 1990s — forced India to go overtly nuclear in 1998.

When the United States announced its civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with India in 2005, Beijing promptly declared its own intention to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan. The message was, if Washington decided to play favourites, China would do the same.

Chinese authorities confirmed earlier this year that Beijing had signed an agreement with Pakistan for two new nuclear reactors at the Chashma site, in addition to the two already under development in Pakistan. This action is in clear violation of the NSG guidelines that forbid nuclear transfers to countries that are not signatories to the non-proliferation treaty or do not adhere to international nuclear safeguards.

With or without the NSG approval, nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan will only intensify as China becomes more assertive in pursuing its interests. Moreover, there’s a sense in Beijing that the Obama administration would be reluctant to challenge the deal, as it needs China’s help on issues ranging from Iran and North Korea to the global economy. The US no longer seems to have the willingness and clout to enforce the rules requiring credible safeguards before civilian nuclear technology can be exported.

China is not only active in Pakistan. Iran has emerged as the second largest customer of China’s defence industry after Pakistan, receiving critical defence technology from China, including technology that violates the stated Chinese policy of adhering to the norms of the non-proliferation regime.

It’s safe to conclude that, notwithstanding the hype surrounding the NPT Review Conference in May, the non-proliferation regime is out of sync with the changing distribution of global power. Is it any surprise that its credibility is rapidly eroding?

(The writer teaches at King’s College, London)

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