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China's Posture on the Indo-US nuclear Deal

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 10, 2007

    Will China veto the India-specific waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)? While various news sources have recently reported that China will not actively oppose the Indo-US deal at the NSG, its approach to the issue so far has generated doubts and debate. The latest exposition of the Chinese position came on September 6, 2007 when the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu stated that "…within the Nuclear Suppliers Group there are different views about relaxing the restrictions on nuclear exports to India." In the absence of a clearly articulated stance, it remains to be seen whether China would veto the passage of an exception allowing India to conduct civil nuclear commerce with NSG members.

    Since the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal, China has maintained that the United States cannot change international nuclear laws unilaterally in India's favour. In fact, the first Chinese media comment on the deal came on October 27, 2005 in the People's Daily in the context of the October 20, 2005 NSG meeting. It stated that "the United States could not help but seek an amendment of … relevant international law for the sake of transfers to India" and that the US proposal "demanding a lift of the ban on sales of nuclear technologies to India … was turned down." A review of the official People's Daily piece titled "Who's Pushing Nuclear Proliferation" written by a military scholar Xin Benjian from the Luoyang PLA Foreign Language College, points to three important Chinese bearings on the issue. First, China is critical of the United States rather than of India, evident, for instance, from the comment that "…America is not at all a "guard" of NPT." Second, the article hints that China may seek a similar agreement for Pakistan by stating that "other nuclear suppliers also have their own partners of interest as well as good reasons to copy what the United States did." Third, it raises the bogey of the deal altering the strategic balance in the region and causing "global nuclear proliferation and competition".

    At the moment, the Chinese strategy appears to be to wait and watch India tackle the twin challenges of (a) obtaining an exception from NSG Guidelines that require "full-scope safeguards" for any NPT-defined non-nuclear weapon state receiving items on the "Trigger List" and (b) negotiating an India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The former requires a consensual decision by the NSG to provide an exception to India, for which China's support is crucial.

    Following its standard diplomatic practice, one can expect China to play a non-committal role in this regard for the time being at least. While replying to a question about the Chinese position on the Indo-US nuclear deal on September 6, 2007, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu tactically avoided answering it by saying that "…we would participate on the relevant issues…" In a similar vein, the Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi stated, without actually disclosing China's possible stance, that "…so far we have been very cautious about making an official statement on the Indo-US deal … Our concern is about the effectiveness of the international non-proliferation regime." Further, Chinese officials have proposed that the deal should meet the "global non-proliferation regime parameters" while seeking early accession by non-signatory nations to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). On an earlier occasion (March 2, 2006), while making a comment in the context of the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang contended that "the international community is working hard to strengthen the authority and efficacy of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime … NPT plays a crucial role in preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons, facilitating nuclear disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy." And he went a step further to say that "China hopes non-signatory countries will join it as soon as possible as non-nuclear weapon states, thereby contributing to strengthening the international non-proliferation regime."

    Two aspects of the Chinese position can be singled out from the above official statements. One, China wants to push the Indo-US nuclear deal to the level of the global debate on non-proliferation. Two, it speaks about global disarmament efforts. These indicate the evolution in Chinese non-proliferation practices. Back in the 1980s, Beijing had viewed non-proliferation as a US attempt to limit China's influence. But today it has committed itself to the non-proliferation regime and its goals by entering into various arms control, export control and non-proliferation agreements and arrangements, including NPT (1992), the Convention on Nuclear Safety (1994), CTBT (1996), the Zangger Committee (1997), and the NSG (2004).

    Drawing strength from these commitments, the Chinese media has openly criticized the Indo-US nuclear deal in various ways and forms. For example, on March 4, 2006, the official news agency, Xinhua, critically remarked that the Indo-US nuclear deal "effectively accepted India's status as a nuclear power". Other recent media reports including that of the People's Daily and Study Times, have highlighted the importance of propagating Chinese views to bolster the country's international image as a responsible power on non-proliferation issues. The official journal of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Study Times in its August 13, 2007 issue portrayed the strategic implications of the Indo-US agreement as a "dangerous precedence". For its part, the People's Daily went to the extent of commenting that the deal seriously damages the "integrity and effectiveness of … non-proliferation" and that it "exposes the United States' multiple standards in non-proliferation".

    China's emphasis on its newly-acquired non-proliferation credentials seems to be partly intended to attempt to bargain an NSG exception for Pakistan as well, with which it has had long-standing nuclear ties, both civil and military. It is with this intent that the Chinese have been arguing that instead of a "single country" exemption in favour of India, the NSG should think about a "criteria-based" approach for granting a special waiver. Beijing's eventual position is also likely to depend on how other NSG members view the India-specific exception. While there is no opposition from any of the major powers, non-proliferation purists could however potentially oppose the move in which case China would have the opportunity of a free-ride without incurring any diplomatic costs.

    There are of course positive signs that China may not attempt to scuttle the NSG exemption for India. Recent reportage on a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of China and India on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly indicates that Beijing will not actively oppose the grant of India-specific safeguards at the NSG. This could well mean that China will neither overtly oppose nor overtly support the India-specific waiver.