By Jabin T Jacob
If the US’ changing the rules of the nuclear world order for facilitating a civilian nuclear deal with India was a case of global hegemony in action, then China’s recent success in getting the Americans to acquiesce to a Sino-Pak civilian nuclear deal is the equivalent of a successful insurgent action.
The fact that the deal comes at a time when the world is still reeling from the radiation leak at the Fukushima plant in Japan following the massive earthquake there earlier this month, is deeply ironical. It is also a sign perhaps of how commercial nuclear energy development is driven, in some parts of the world at least, by concerns more important than issues of safety both of the reactor itself and of the population living in proximity to it or of threats from non-state actors.
There is also the chance that the Americans are being too clever by half. Global concerns over nuclear energy have increased following the Fukushima incident and the Chinese themselves are reviewing their massive build-up of civilian nuclear power over safety concerns. The Americans might therefore assume that their willingness to let the Sino-Pak nuclear deal go uncontested in the NSG, after several years of opposition, might not necessarily lead to the deal actually fructifying at least in the near term. Whether this calculation might actually take the heat off the US administration from realists inclined to view things in this light or whether it gives cause for still greater indignation, particularly among the nonproliferation lobbies in the US, remains to be seen.
In this context then, American declarations that the Sino-Pak deal is now acceptable owing to Pakistan’s own massive internal demand for electricity might be mere posturing. Together with the timing of the dropping of American objections, this raises larger questions of American sincerity with respect to Pakistan’s legitimate development goals. Why, for example, was the US not willing to acknowledge Pakistan’s massive energy shortfall when talk of the Sino-Pak nuclear deal first came up? And does this mean that the US itself will be willing to enter into a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan?
Answering the last question in the affirmative would imply two things. One, that the US now believes that Pakistan is no longer a proliferation risk and two, that Pakistan’s nuclear assets are well safeguarded and under no threat from extremist elements. Given that the workings of AQ Khan’s clandestine network are still not fully known, for the US to accept the first proposition would be a leap of faith just as accepting the second proposition is to willfully ignore the daily reality of bombings and killings that afflict Pakistan.
With respect to China specifically, Washington continues to insist that the construction of the Chashma 3 and 4 reactors in Pakistan, would be ‘nconsistent’ ith Beijing’s NSG commitments. While the US remains the world’s preeminent military power in the world and still manages to rile the Chinese simply on the strength of its presence and ability to intervene in China’s immediate neighbourhood, the acceptance of the Sino-Pak nuclear deals indicates also American powerlessness to push China beyond a point.
Some might argue that the Sino-Pak nuclear deal is symptomatic of the growing weakness of the American hand vis-à-vis China since the global financial crisis. And that this weakness extends to even the nuclear proliferation agenda so dear to the Democrats could be a matter for still greater concern in Washington and elsewhere. Indeed, what implications does the American acceptance of the Sino-Pak nuclear deal hold for the North Korean nuclear situation? Here again, the US will be dealing with a close Chinese ally that suffers from a massive energy shortfall and the economic and social consequences that go with it.
Coming to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been sanguine in the past, saying for example, when queried about a possible US-Pak nuclear deal that it was purely a bilateral matter between them. His government will however view the Sino-Pak nuclear deal with just a little more concern, even if US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake, declared that India understood the linkage between Pakistan’s severe energy shortage and its perilous internal stability situation. But even if New Delhi were to accept the latest deal as being legitimate under the framework of the NPT, ignore nonproliferation concerns related to Pakistan and simply accept a Sino-Pak relationship aimed against India as a fact of life, what will really sour the Indian mood will be the Assistant Secretary’s reiteration of China playing ‘an important role’ in the region.
If the Bush administration could be credited with a sense of the long-term global good when it cut the Gordian knot of unfair regulations that stymied India, as a responsible nuclear power, from accessing the full benefits of nuclear trade and commerce, then the Obama administration’s surrender before the Chinese on the Pakistan nuclear deal can be termed the result of a certain lack of spine.
Jabin T Jacob
Senior Research Fellow, IPCS
email: [email protected]