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- Monday, July 02, 2012 - From Print Edition

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service.

The 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which sets the rules to ensure that exports of nuclear and nuclear-related material are not used for military purposes, held its annual plenary session on 21-22 June in the US city of Seattle. As at its two previous annual meetings, held in New Zealand (2010) and the Netherlands (2011), the Western countries led by the US again urged China to address their “concerns” about Chinese plans to add two reactors (Chashma-3 and -4) to the nuclear power plant supplied by it to Pakistan and to provide more information on the project. According to a Reuters report, the Western efforts to pressure China were “rebuffed” by it.

The meeting also discussed the proposal to admit India to the NSG, which the US has been sponsoring and which Washington had first brought up formally last year. The group did not reach any conclusion on India’s proposed membership and decided to continue its consideration of the matter.

The two issues – Western objections to the expansion of the Chashma nuclear power plant and the admission of India to the NSG – are of course not unrelated. They are in fact two sides of the same coin. Behind them are the same actors – US and India – and the same purpose, namely to legitimise India’s nuclear weapons programme while de-legitimising that of Pakistan, which is the key element of the US policy, announced by Bush and taken forward by Obama, to “de-hyphenate” its relations with Pakistan and India.

China is the only major power to have offered resistance to the Indo-US designs. Most of the other major nuclear suppliers, which in the past had been insisting on the acceptance by India of “full-scope safeguards” on its nuclear programme (i.e., inspections of all nuclear facilities) as a condition for opening nuclear supplies, have fallen in line behind the US. They have done so either because they see lucrative business opportunities in the opening of the Indian nuclear market; or because they do not wish to displease a rising regional giant (and aspiring global power); or because they lack the capacity to stand up to heavy-handed pressure from the US.

Even the Zardari government, in its keenness to win favour with Washington, had decided in August 2008 not to oppose the approval of the safeguards agreement between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was a prerequisite for the finalisation of the India-US nuclear deal. As Shah Mahmood Qureshi, then foreign minister, confirmed publicly more than three years later, Zardari personally ordered the cancellation of the instructions sent by the foreign ministry to the Pakistan delegation at the IAEA Board of Governors to demand equal treatment for Pakistan.

After getting the NSG waiver, India’s next goal now is membership of the group. In November 2009, it publicly began its campaign for admission to the NSG, as well as three other international export-control regimes. But its foremost priority is entry into the NSG. India’s interest in joining the NSG stems not only from a desire to influence the group’s policies on the export of nuclear technology but, more important, because its membership would enable Delhi to block a possible future waiver in favour of Pakistan.

The main argument advanced by those who are in favour of making India a member is that it would bring the country into the non-proliferation “mainstream.” The same “justification” was used in 2008 to exempt India from NSG guidelines. India itself has been making this point in its lobbying effort. Speaking at an international seminar hosted by India last April to push its case, the Indian foreign secretary declared that “it would be in the interest of the four [export-control] regimes that India’s exports are subject to the same framework as other major supplier countries.”

Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace favours a more deliberate approach on India’s admission to the NSG. “Little in India’s past behaviour suggests it would become an advocate for stronger controls,” he writes. “It’s more likely that India would seek to loosen guidelines for trade... Most importantly, India could block any future initiative to strengthen NSG guidelines or commodity control lists to respond to new procurement or proliferation threats.” Hibbs therefore recommends that India’s membership should not be rushed.

But these issues are decided on political considerations more than the merit of the arguments. Besides the US, which announced its support for India’s membership in October 2010, Russia, France and Britain are also strongly backing the Indian bid. Once China agrees to go along, India would be admitted very quickly. The question is not whether Indian would become a member but how soon.

While NSG guidelines continue to bar the supply of peaceful nuclear technology to Pakistan, China’s decision to supply Chashma-3 and -4 has made a small but highly significant breach in the US-led international nuclear embargo on Pakistan. Beijing has argued that the construction of the two reactors is not a violation of the NSG rules as it is “grandfathered” under a bilateral agreement with Pakistan signed before China joined the group in 2004. This argument is rejected by the US. Washington claims that China had informed the NSG members at that time that it had no intention to sell any more power reactors to Pakistan beyond Chashma-1 and -2 and that China had enumerated what was on its list of goods that it had committed itself to export to Pakistan.

The third and fourth units at Chashma are politically more valuable to Pakistan than all the “aid” it has received from the US for providing support to its war in Afghanistan. But it is far from an ideal solution to Pakistan’s energy problems. For one thing, China will not be able to supply reactors which use modern technology provided by foreign vendors. Also, it is not certain how much of Pakistan’s future nuclear energy programme, such as the construction of two coastal nuclear power plants (CNPP-1, CNPP-2) in Karachi, each with a capacity of 1,000MW, would be “grandfathered” by the old bilateral agreement with China.

The A Q Khan network gave the US a seemingly plausible reason to deny Pakistan a waiver from NSG rules. But the truth is that this is only a convenient excuse and that India was given a generous nuclear deal, mainly because it suited the US strategic design to “make India a global power” (Condoleezza Rice’s words) as a counterweight to the rise of China. Negotiations between Washington and Delhi on giving India access to nuclear technology (and excluding Pakistan) had been going on even before the A Q Khan network was discovered in October 2003, thanks to the decision of our old friend Muammar Qaddafi to “come clean” on his nuclear ambitions. It is only that the Musharraf regime did not notice what was afoot between Washington and Delhi, because his attention was focused on the far more important goal of gaining Washington’s blessing for his illegitimate rule.

For Zardari as well, retaining favour with Washington has a far higher priority than the lifting of the international ban on civil nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. Apart from the occasional whining over discriminatory treatment by the US, the Zardari government clearly has no policy in the matter.

The government has also completely ignored the recommendation made by the Parliament last April that in talks with the US on the revised terms of engagement, Pakistan should “seek” an agreement similar to the India-US nuclear deal. No one would suggest that Pakistan could have demanded such an agreement in return for the opening of the supply routes. But what the government could have done is to place the issue of civil nuclear cooperation firmly on the bilateral agenda. By failing to do so, Zardari has demonstrated once again that, while sitting in the Presidency, he is pursuing priorities that are personal, not national.

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