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Dynamics of China's Supply of Nuclear Reactors to Pakistan

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 23, 2006

    Despite the categorical denial by the Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson about a report published by a British newspaper in January 2006, that Islamabad was engaged in talks with China to purchase eight nuclear reactors worth US $7 billion, the Chinese media later disclosed Beijing's plan of signing an agreement to supply six reactors. Speculation in this regard has gained currency now that the two countries are to enter into a nuclear deal during the ongoing visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Pakistan. Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesperson said ambiguously that a "new accord" is not on the cards. The official statement from Pakistan does not however clarify on how close the two sides have come on what they have been negotiating for the last couple of years, including the supply of reactors for Chasma and Karachi.

    Beijing tirelessly mentions that its nuclear co-operation with Pakistan is purely for the peaceful utilisation of nuclear energy. Yet, any news of China supplying Pakistan with anything in addition to the support given in the past raises international alarm. In fact, nuclear and missile collaboration between the two countries has led to perilous proliferation consequences. Disclosures about the clandestine links between Pakistan and the nuclear programmes of Libya, North Korea and Iran adequately substantiate this point.

    Still, the nuclear component always remains high on the agenda of the 'all weather' friendship between China and Pakistan. The dynamics of nuclear cooperation between the two countries involve a number of issues, mainly, securing the non-proliferation regime, Pakistan's dependence on outside support for working on the fuel cycle, and the proliferation vulnerabilities in Pakistan.

    The international non-proliferation regime has been facing unprecedented challenges. The most difficult of these involves striking a balance between the promotion of safe nuclear commerce and efforts to control the transfer of nuclear technology (of dual utility - both civilian and military). The stupendous task ahead is how to plug the loopholes in international export control arrangements that otherwise allow State actors to circumvent the obligations prescribed under any regime composed of rules, norms, principles and procedures.

    The extant nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime, along with the nuclear suppliers group (NSG) regime, has been damaged severely by the indulgence of its member states in clandestine nuclear transfers, while maintaining the façade of working within these frameworks. The disclosures on the Pakistan-based A.Q. Khan network dealt a severe blow to the entire edifice of the NPT. The immediate question raised internationally was who helped Pakistan with critical technologies, and China's role stands out in this regard.

    Glossing over what A.Q. Khan confessed to in January 2004 about being instrumental in clandestinely transferring nuclear technology to different parts of the world, China signed in May that year an agreement with Pakistan for the second Chasma Nuclear Power Plant (Chasnupp-II) project worth $600 million. It was a timely Chinese move to stand by its strategic ally at a time when Pakistan's nuclear programme came under enormous suspicion and international scrutiny.

    The first 300-megawatt plant (Chasnupp-I) agreement was signed between Pakistan and China in 1991. It faced several technical difficulties before its final inauguration on March 29, 2001, including a fire in the plant, mainly due to problems in handling the imported inputs. It will remain a mystery as to why China cancelled a similar deal with Iran, though some say it was because of US pressure. China, however, went ahead and assisted Pakistan in setting up Chasnupp-I.

    Apart from providing Pakistan with sufficient technological and equipment support for setting up the nuclear reactor and reprocessing facilities, China also has helped Pakistan in overcoming certain difficulties in its enrichment programme. Though Pakistan does have a uranium hexafluoride plant in Dera Gazi Khan, which was bought from a German firm, CES Kalthog, on a turnkey basis, the feed material for it in the form of uranium hexafluoride was also reportedly given by China in the initial stages. Pakistan is thus not self-reliant in the nuclear cycle and will continue to depend on China for crucial needs in technology-related matters.

    The complex technical parameters of scientific advancements connected to the building of reactors shows how China took a bold step in committing to nuclear co-operation with Pakistan even at the stage when Beijing itself was in the process of perfecting the technology. In fact, Chasnupp-I is a copy of the Qinshan-I reactor in Zhejiang province, and the latter itself faced many technical snags before it finally started operating in April 1994.

    It is indeed noteworthy that just before China became a member of the NPT in March 1992 it signed a contract with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) on December 31, 1991 to export the reactor for Chasnupp I. Similarly, it signed the Chasnupp II deal on May 4, 2004, only three weeks before formally joining the NSG on May 28, 2004. According to media reports, other major components of the Chasnupp-II would be manufactured, with Chinese assistance, in Pakistan itself.

    Even though China has joined the NSG, one cannot be sure whether the extent of Chinese assistance to Pakistan's nuclear sector will be the same as before. But it is quite realistic to assume that, in the foreseeable future, Beijing's aid will remain critical to Pakistan for running its projects, especially those built with Chinese help.

    Ironically, China has for long followed a proliferation embedded foreign policy approach to score strategic gains. The perilous consequences of such a policy for international non-proliferation efforts is becoming apparent now. China's role in nurturing the nuclear ambitions of Pakistan and North Korea is now being widely debated. And efforts are on to unearth the true extent of help that was in turn extended by these countries to the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes. It has not only been reported that North Korean and Chinese technicians travelled together to Iran to work on the latter's ballistic missile development programme, but that there have also been secret visits of engineers and scientists from Pakistan and Iran to North Korea.

    Zia-ul-Haq had stated in 1986 that " it is our right to obtain technology" and, "when we acquire this technology the Islamic world will posses it with us". But the recent revelations project a larger network of proliferation even beyond the Islamic world, namely North Korea. Today, Pakistan is the hub of international proliferation links.

    The international community is struggling to unravel how Libya acquired a Chinese nuclear weapon design and to what extent nuclear related transfers from Pakistan has benefited North Korea. In addition, though it is not yet confirmed from where North Korea obtained the weapon design, the fear is that Iran could soon follow Pyongyang into the nuclear weapons club. The gravest perceived danger is nuclear technology and material falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

    Without structuring effective international mechanisms to rectify the lapses as reported in Pakistan, the expansion of nuclear infrastructure in that country would remain open to potential proliferation vulnerabilities. Yet, its foreign minister, Khursheed Kasuri, says that Pakistan is preparing to 'establish nuclear parks in the country'. One hopes that China would exercise restraint even as it helps Pakistan in the nuclear field.