The hopefully positive outcome of the visit of President Hu Jintao to India from November 20 to 23, 2006, was the indication, which started coming in even before his visit, of a seeming change in China's attitude to India's quest for civilian nuclear energy technology and equipment in order to meet the growing energy demands of its fast-growing economy. Its attitude is no longer negative as it was at least till June, 2006. It is seemingly positive now, but whether this change to the positive is unconditional or conditional upon the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) adopting a similar stance towards Pakistan too remains to be seen.
Between July, 2005, when India and the US signed the bilateral deal on civilian nuclear co-operation, and June, 2006, Beijing's reaction was unmistakably unenthusiastic. It sought to justify its lack of enthusiasm on the ground that such a special waiver to India, when it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and not given up its military nuclear ambitions, could weaken the global non-proliferation architecture.
While Chinese government spokespersons avoided outspoken comments on the India-US deal while making obvious their lack of enthusiasm for it, the government-controlled media in China observed no such restraint. For example, the People's Daily wrote on November 4, 2005:
"This would be a hard blow on America's leading role in the global proliferation prevention system as well as the system itself. This will bring about a series of negative impacts. Now that the United States buys another country in with nuclear technologies in defiance of international treaty, other nuclear suppliers also have their own partners of interest as well as good reasons to copy what the United States did. A domino effect of nuclear proliferation, once turned into reality, will definitely lead to global nuclear proliferation and competition. Always calling itself a 'guard' for nuclear proliferation prevention, the US often condemns other countries for irresponsible transfers but this time, it hesitates not a bit in revising laws, taking the lead in 'making an exception' (in the case of India).Such an act of the United States once again proves that America is not at all a 'guard' of NPT and the treaty, however, is no more than a disguise serving the US interest. The most immediate reason for the foundation of NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) was India's first nuclear test in 1974, after which the United States instantly cut off its nuclear cooperation with India and established the NSG in 1975 to restrict selling sensitive nuclear technologies and raw materials to non-NPT countries. Over the past 30 years, the United States has always been trying to prevent India from access to nuclear technologies. Today, however, the United States wants a change."
The editorial came in the wake of a meeting of the NSG on October 20, 2005, at which a US representative briefed the NSG members on the Indo-US deal and spoke of the US intention to move for the lifting of the NSG restrictions against India after the passage of the enabling legislation by the US Congress and the finalisation of a formal bilateral agreement by India and the US.
The lack of enthusiasm for the Indo-US nuclear deal was again evident at the time of the visit of President George Bush to India in the first week of March, 2006. In the daily media briefing of the Chinese Foreign Office at Beijing on March 2, 2006, its spokesperson Qin Gang said: "India should abandon nuclear weapons and strengthen atomic safeguards. India should sign the NPT and also dismantle its nuclear weapons. As a signatory country, 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. China hopes that concerned countries developing cooperation in peaceful nuclear uses will pay attention to these efforts. The cooperation should conform with the rules of international non-proliferation mechanisms."
This negative attitude was in a great measure caused by the Chinese suspicion that the Indo-US nuclear deal was the US' quid pro quo for an Indian willingness to co-operate with the US in countering the growing Chinese power in the Asian region. This suspicion was strengthened when our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, decided not to attend the summit meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) as an observer at Shanghai in June, 2006. The Indian explanation that since India was only an observer of the SCO and not a full-fledged member, its participation at the level of the head of government was not warranted did not seem convincing to Beijing. The Prime Minister's decision not to go was interpreted as due to the US suspicion that one of the main objectives of the SCO was to counter the US presence and role in the Central Asian Republics. As a result, China's lack of enthusiasm for the Indo-US nuclear deal continued.
In the meanwhile, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan initiated a campaign to counter the Indo-US deal at two levels. He did not oppose the deal. Nor did Pakistan energetically try to have the deal disapproved by the US Congress through Congressmen and Senators sympathetic to it. Instead, it sought to counter the deal by using the following arguments. First, it will be discriminatory to Pakistan if it was not made applicable to it too. Second, it will create a military nuclear asymmetry in the sub-continent by enabling India to divert its domestic stock of fuel for military purposes, while using the imported fuel for civilian purposes under international safeguards. Thus, it will have an adverse effect on Pakistan's national security.
The US rejected the Pakistani arguments by pointing out that Pakistan's economy was unlikely to grow as rapidly as the Indian economy in the short and medium terms and hence it should be possible to meet its energy requirements from conventional sources. The US also repeatedly made it clear that in view of the role of Dr. A. Q. Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, and some of his colleagues in clandestinely supplying nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, Pakistan cannot be treated on par with India, which had an unimpeachable record of non-proliferation.
While sticking to his arguments, Musharraf requested the Chinese leaders during his State visit to China in February, 2006, for Chinese assistance in the construction of six more nuclear power stations, with a capacity of 600 or 900 MWS each. The Chinese reportedly agreed in principle to supply two stations of 300 MWs each to be followed later by four more. This subject again figured in the General's bilateral discussions with Mr Hu in the margins of the SCO summit in June, 2006, and in the subsequent discussions between the officials of the two countries, who met at Islamabad and Beijing for doing the preparatory work for Mr Hu's visit to Pakistan from November 23 to 26.
Gen. Musharraf and his officials were so confident that an agreement in principle for the construction of two nuclear power stations would be initialed during Mr Hu's visit that they even set up a site selection task force.
Then for reasons, which are not yet clear, there were indications of changes in the Chinese attitude---less negative towards the Indo-US nuclear deal and increasingly guarded on the Pakistani request for new nuclear power stations. Were the two changes (towards India and Pakistan) inter-connected or did they come about independently of each other for unconnected reasons? A convincing answer to these questions is not yet available.
In the case of India, the changing Chinese attitude was reflected in the daily media briefing of the Foreign Office spokesperson and in a media interview given by the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi. In the case of Pakistan, the change was reflected in the daily media briefings of the spokespersons of the two Foreign Offices at Beijing and Islamabad.
In an interview to the Press Trust of India (PTI), which was circulated by the agency on November 20, 2006, before the arrival of Mr Hu in New Delhi, Mr Sun Yuxi, the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi, was reported to have stated as follows: "Every country has the right to develop energy in any form, including nuclear form, to meet its development needs. The objectives of non-proliferation should also be maintained and strengthened." When it was pointed out by the agency that India had contended that it abided by all non-proliferation rules although it had not signed the NPT, he said: "Anything which can strengthen non-proliferation efforts should be welcomed by the international community.'' He added that Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon had recently apprised him about the issue and told him that India was trying to strengthen the non-proliferation regime. "I (would) like to take his word... If India is making effort, if any effort (is being made) to strengthen non-proliferation, I agree,'' he said. The Chinese envoy, however, refused to comment on the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal on the ground that it was a bilateral issue between India and the US..
A few hours later, in response to a question on the subject, Jiang Yu, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at Beijing: "China has sought more information and explanations from India to address the concerns of some countries on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. We hope that Indian side can attach importance to these opinions and provide more information and explanations. Chinese side has noted that during the deliberations in the NSG regarding US-India nuclear cooperation, some countries expressed concern and doubts. The Chinese side will continue to participate in these relevant discussions with an earnest and responsible attitude."
Almost coinciding with these explanations at New Delhi and Beijing, the spokespersons of the Foreign Ministries of Pakistan and China tried to discourage expectations in Pakistan that Gen. Musharraf and Mr Hu would be initialling a memorandum of understanding on the Chinese supply of two more nuclear power stations. They described the reports in this regard, which had been appearing in the Pakistani media for weeks before Mr Hu's visit, as speculative and not based on facts.
The Joint Declaration issued on November 21, 2006, at the end of the formal talks between Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mr Hu says: "Energy security constitutes a vital and strategic issue for producing and consuming countries alike. It is consistent with the common interest of the two sides to establish an international energy order, which is fair, equitable, secure and stable, and to the benefit of the entire international community. Both sides shall also make joint efforts, bilaterally as well as in multilateral fora, to diversify the global energy mix and to increase the share in it of renewable energy sources. Global energy systems should take into account and meet the energy needs of both countries, as part and parcel of a stable, predictable, secure and clean energy future. In this context, international civilian nuclear cooperation should be advanced through innovative and forward-looking approaches, while safeguarding the effectiveness of international non-proliferation principles. Both countries are committed to non-proliferation objectives and agree to expand their dialogue on the related issues, in bilateral and international fora."
The reference to promotion of international civilian nuclear co-operation through "innovative and forward-looking approaches" has been interpreted, with some validity, as confirming the evolution of the Chinese view on the Indo-US deal from negative to hopefully positive. As a result, there is a greater confidence now that China may not oppose the removal of restrictions applicable to India when the matter formally comes up before the NSG at the initiative of the US. This guarded optimism is also evident from an interview given by Shri Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian Minister For External Affairs, to Shri Karan Thapar of the IBN-CNN TV channel on November 26. The relevant extract is annexed.
Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mr Hu had formal talks hardly for a little more than an hour. The carefully-formulated position on the nuclear issue could not have been the outcome of such a brief meeting. The final version of the Joint Declaration was already ready before the two leaders formally met and approved it. It had been drafted by the officials of the two countries in their preparatory meetings in the weeks before Mr Hu's arrival. The change in the Chinese position must have been the outcome of these discussions in the weeks before Mr Hu's visit and not a sudden change on the eve of the summit or at the summit itself.
As against this, the change in the Chinese position with regard to Pakistan's request for six more nuclear power stations came about suddenly in the days (not weeks) before Mr Hu's arrival in Islamabad. Why and how this happened?
Well-informed Pakistani sources attribute the more guarded Chinese position to the bilateral discussions between President George Bush and Mr Hu at Hanoi in the margins of the summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) Organisation on November 18 and 19, 2006. The speculation (not yet confirmed) is that during these bilateral discussions, Mr Bush pointed out to Mr Hu that the Chinese supply of new nuclear power stations to Pakistan could not be projected as a continuation of the Chinese assistance to Pakistan under a 1985 bilateral co-operation treaty under which CHASHMA I and CHASHMA II were given and hence would need the clearance of the NSG. According to this speculation, Mr Bush is also reported to have referred to the Pakistani rejection of repeated requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to hand over Dr. A. Q. Khan for an independent interrogation and pointed out that the Chinese supply of the new power stations could encourage Pakistan's non-cooperation with the IAEA.
It is believed by these sources that Beijing, which has been projecting itself as a responsible and co-operative interlocutor of the US, Japan and South Korea on the question of North Korea's nuclear test and has won praise for its role in bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, did not want this positive image to be dented by disregarding the reservations of Mr Bush relating to the supply of new power stations to Pakistan. It, therefore, changed its stance at the last minute.
There was no substantive reference to the co-operation between China and Pakistan in the field of civilian nuclear energy during Mr Hu's visit to Pakistan. The joint statement issued on November 25, 2006, by Gen. Musharraf and Mr Hu said: "The two sides also agreed to strengthen cooperation in the energy sector, including fossil fuels, coal, hydro-power, nuclear power, renewable sources of energy as well as in the mining and resources sector." Addressing a press conference after his talks with Gen. Musharraf, Mr Hu said in reply to a question on nuclear co-operation: "Cooperation in the energy sector is an important component in the relationship between the two countries. We reached a common understanding on strengthening energy cooperation. We would continue this cooperation in future as well." While Mr Hu himself did not refer to any future supply of new nuclear power stations, some Pakistani analysts have interpreted Mr Hu's remarks as indicating a willingness to supply more nuclear power stations.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Will China unconditionally support the lifting of the restrictions against India when the matter formally comes up before the NSG? Or will it link it to an approval of its proposal to supply more nuclear power stations to Pakistan? The replies of Shri Mukherjee indicate that the government of India is not unduly concerned over the prospects of China supplying more nuclear power stations to Pakistan so long as it supports the removal of the restrictions against India.
If China unconditionally supports the follow-up action on the Indo-US nuclear deal without linking it to its proposal to supply nuclear power stations to Pakistan, that would indicate another positive and significant step forward in the Sino-Indian bilateral relations.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.