White House Low-Key on China-Pakistan Nuke Deal

Last week’s meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in New Zealand brought statements of concern over China’s planned nuclear deal with Pakistan, but U.S. State Department officials avoided taking a strong position on the deal when pressed by reporters this week.

China’s proposed sale of two nuclear reactors to Pakistan would, in theory, stand in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — of which China is a signatory — but the Barack Obama administration’s finalization in March of an agreement to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from India could face similar criticism. 

Critics charge that both the China-Pakistan and U.S.-India deals violate the NPT by facilitating nuclear programs in states which are not parties to the NPT. 

U.S. State Department officials avoided questions from reporters about the China-Pakistan deal during the NSG meeting. When questioned on Monday, State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley said that issues surrounding China’s nuclear deal had been brought up at last week’s meeting but that the U.S. "[continues] to seek information from China regarding its future plans." 

On Monday, Crowley told reporters, "We’re looking for more information from China as to what it is potentially proposing. We have a view that this initiative, as it goes forward, would need the agreement of the Nuclear Suppliers Group."

Other members of the NSG were not as restrained in their response to the possible transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan. 

The British government expressed the opinion that "the time is not yet right for a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan."

The Obama administration has numerous reasons to abstain from joining the condemnation of the Chinese plan to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan. 

The White House has worked hard in recent months to improve relations after a difficult winter in which pressures grew on the administration to declare China a currency manipulator and the announcement of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan provoked angry statements from Beijing. 

The ongoing war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan necessitates good U.S. relations with Pakistan in order to maintain supply routes into Afghanistan and assure cooperation in facilitating operations against Taliban havens in Pakistan. 

Experts in Washington have concluded it to be unlikely that the White House will offer any public opposition to the China-Pakistan nuclear deal. 

"The United States and other NSG states may object to the pending transaction but they cannot prevent China from exporting the reactors," Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, wrote in April. 

"Senior officials in NSG states friendly to the United States said this month they expect that President Barack Obama will not openly criticize the Chinese export because Washington, in the context of a bilateral security dialogue with Islamabad, may be sensitive to Pakistan’s desire for civilian nuclear cooperation in the wake of the sweeping U.S.-India nuclear deal which entered into force in 2008 after considerable arm-twisting of NSG states by the United States, France, and Russia," he wrote. 

When the U.S. announced in 2008 its intention to push through an exemption in the NPT to permit the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India, arms control advocates widely condemned the agreement as weakening the NPT, while others charged that the NPT maintained a double-standard for close allies of the U.S. 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has complained of the hypocrisy in the restrictions put on the export of civilian nuclear technology while the U.S. pushed for a loophole for India, a country which has not signed the NPT and has developed nuclear weapons. 

The Obama administration has repeatedly made clear that the challenges surrounding nuclear non-proliferation and the reduction of nuclear weapons stockpiles are one of the top international initiatives that the White House is seeking to address. 

Obama has spoken about his goal of a world "without nuclear weapons" and has emphasized the three pillars — disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear technology — which form the framework for a global reduction in the threat from nuclear weapons. 

The NPT has been seen as the most effective avenue to channel U.S. efforts to reduce the risk of proliferation but some experts are concerned that the U.S. and China’s attempts to sidestep the NPT and engage in nuclear deals with non-NPT signing countries will weaken the treaty. 

While the Chinese attempts to seek an exemption for their nuclear deal with Pakistan may garner some criticism, it seems unlikely that the White House will risk a public spat with China over the proposed sale. 

Earlier this month, experts warned that the China-Pakistan nuclear deal could be a difficult issue at the NSG meeting but that a pre-2004 Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation agreement, signed before China joined the NSG, could be used by Beijing to allow the nuclear reactors sale to be "grandfathered" in. 

"In the aftermath of the U.S.-India deal and the group’s decision to accommodate it, the NSG will have to perform a delicate balancing act to find the least unsatisfactory solution to China’s challenge," Hibbs said on Jun. 17. 

"In the view of some NSG states, an agreement permitting China to grandfather the exports under the 2004 nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan would be the least damaging outcome, but it may not be credible," he said. "If China seeks an exemption, NSG countries could urge Beijing to provide nuclear security and non-proliferation benefits in exchange for limited commerce with Pakistan."

(Inter Press Service)