China's Pakistan card

The most worrisome strategic development for India in the near future will come from the nature and consequences of China’s role in the evolution of Pakistan.

The recently reported agreement between China and Pakistan for setting up of two nuclear power plants in Karachi can certainly be justified on the surface in view of Pakistan’s civilian power crisis. But the implications of growing nuclear and missile cooperation between these two countries are going to be ominous.

Moreover, the effect of China’s political and strategic investment in Pakistan will be felt much beyond the region. The danger of this development is not hard to discover. First of all, China is apparently making Pakistan a testing ground for its technology with military implications. The proposed sale of two reactors to Pakistan, for instance, is not about transfer of well tested and trusted nuclear reactors, but about the ones that are currently under experimental development in Chinese nuclear labs.

Secondly, the timing of this deal is significant. The Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement appears to be grounded for the moment partly due to the Indian nuclear liability Act. This deal was made possible after years of intense diplomatic efforts that included a hard-won waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group or NSG. China now wants to show to the world that it could promote civil nuclear cooperation agreement with client countries without any NSG waiver.

In other words, China is sending signals that it is a more convenient nuclear supplier than the United States and its allies who follow stricter rules and put too many conditions. If this Sino-Pakistan nuclear deal goes through with little international opposition, relevance of NSG may begin to be questioned. Genuine nonproliferation efforts may go waste. Nuclear reactor market may begin to be guided by marker principles rather than proliferation concerns. Thirdly, China’s nuclear business with Pakistan is unfolding at a time when terrorist groups in Pakistan are getting emboldened. Recent history shows how even Pakistani military establishments are not immune to terrorist attacks.

The proposed end of Nato and American military operations have not only encouraged the Taliban but also inspired the Pakistani terrorist organisations, some of whom aspire to acquire WMD capability.

One may argue that nuclear reactors in Karachi are not going to be bomb making facilities. But the main worry is safety of reactors. History is witness to terrorists blowing up oil pipelines and oil wells. Moreover, the Pakistani State has been ceaselessly expanding its nuclear arsenals. Is it the time to reward Pakistan with nuclear reactors?

Strategic signalling

Fourthly, China’s nuclear investment in Pakistan appears to be related to Beijing’s strategic signalling. The target is undoubtedly the United States. The distrust in US-Pakistan relations has been deepening since the killing of Osama bin Laden. The strategic alliance of these two countries may not survive the pullout of US troops from Afghanistan. Even the remnants of alliance can be rendered meaningless, if China’s assurance of friendship is cemented with durable nuclear cooperation.

The Asian rebalancing strategy of the Obama Administration has rankled China. While warning America against any attempt to contain China’s rise to power, Xi Jinping regime in Beijing has developed a strategy to counter the American policy of strengthening its existing alliances and expanding strategic partnerships with countries, such as India and Vietnam. China’s counter-strategy is reflected in picking up quarrels with America’s allies and strategic partners and cementing its ties with its all-weather allies and potential regional powers. In the not-too-distant a future, one may witness China stretching its hands of cooperation to Iran, North Korea, Libya and a few other countries in Africa and West Asia.

The world will, of course, scrutinise how the US is going to respond to Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation. In the recent past, both the Bush administration and the Obama Administration clamped several rounds of proliferation related sanctions on Chinese entities. But the sanctions were not against Chinese government per se. Moreover, the sanctions were not stinging and some of them were lifted only on the ground of Chinese government’s verbal assurances to be mindful of proliferation concerns.
In years to come, India may helplessly stare at a Pakistan growing from strength to strength by qualitatively and quantitatively expanding its WMD arsenal and putting in place an array of nuclear reactors to face the challenge of its power crisis with little international responsibility or accountability due to Chinese help. China will certainly use its relations with Pakistan for larger goals.

The all-weather alliance between China and Pakistan will be incrementally strengthened in the wake of US withdrawal of its troops from the region. With Pakistan’s cooperation, China may enter Afghanistan in a bigger way to use the natural resources of that country. Good and cooperative relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan may be pursued by Beijing also as a shield against ethnic troubles in Xinjiang.

India during all these developments may still find itself in the midst of endless diplomatic negotiations to take its own civil nuclear programme off the ground.

(The writer is a professor at school of international studies, JNU)

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