Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > October 20, 2007 > China’s Posture on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal

Mainstream, Vol XLV No 44

China’s Posture on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal

Monday 22 October 2007, by Jagannath P. Panda

The recently concluded two-day India-China Eminent Persons Group (EPG) meeting in Beijing has reiterated the need for a mechanism to ensure “visible implementation” of the memoranda of understanding and other cooperative measures between the two countries. This assumes greater significance in Sino-Indian relations particularly in the backdrop of China’s unhappiness about the growing Indo-US strategic partnership. While many observers see the outcome of the eminent persons meeting positively, others see it as a routine programme that only makes headlines. As events unfold, particularly before Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing towards the end of this year, China appears to be mellowing its articulations against the Indo-US nuclear deal, which clearly indicates that the reality lies somewhere in between.

From India’s perspective, it is argued that the success of this year’s EPG meeting lay in the much clearer Chinese stance on the India-US nuclear deal. In fact, the most interesting thing to be noticed from the recently concluded EPG meeting was that China did not stress on India being a non-signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Addressing the media after the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated that China is ready to “explore cooperation with all countries for the peaceful use of nuclear energy in accordance with the rules of the IAEA”. While on the one hand it seems that China is slowly accepting the reality of the Indo-US nuclear deal, on the other hand it is argued that this statement is a sign that China is in favour of establishing with its “all-weather” ally Pakistan a similar agreement to maintain a regional balance.

Many also see the statement of the Chinese Foreign Minister as an open offer to India of civil nuclear cooperation. However, given the contentious bilateral issues, the possibility of such a cooperation appears dim, though the formulation of the idea of such cooperation in itself can be seen as a major step in the evolving Sino-Indian relations. In fact, a Joint Declaration issued during President Hu Jintao’s 2006 tour of India read:

Considering that for both India and China, expansion of civilian nuclear energy programme is an essential and an important component of their national energy plans to ensure energy security, the two sides agree to promote cooperation in the field of nuclear
energy, consistent with their respective international commitments.

Keeping this declaration in mind, it is conceivable that China could well participate in the Indian nuclear energy sector once the deal with the United States eventually comes through.

Whatever may be the future of China-India nuclear cooperation, one can notice a subtle move in the Chinese approach to the Indo-US nuclear deal. For instance, Cheng Ruisheng, a member of the India-China Eminent Person’s Group has said that China will not adopt a “dogmatic” stand on the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and jeopardise Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming visit to Beijing. In fact, on August 27 Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao said that

The visit to be paid to China by Prime Minister Singh within this year is an important diplomatic event in China-India relations. It is also a big event in the development of China-India relations.

Though it appears that China has decided to advocate a flexible stand on the issue, this may not actually be the case. This is the main concern that bothers many strategic observers. Would China continue its current posture or would it try and counter the Indo-US nuclear deal?

Till now, China has maintained the stand that the US cannot change the international nuclear laws unilaterally to support India. For example, the Communist Party’s newspaper People’s Daily noted that

the nuclear cooperation between the US and India not only seriously damages the integrity and effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime, it exposes the United States’ multiple standards in non-proliferation.

In fact, China has insisted that any change in the rules to clear the Indo-US nuclear deal must be based on universal criteria. This would enable it to argue in favour of Pakistan too being given such a deal, thus helping Islamabad maintain a regional balance with India.

It is understood that China vehemently opposes the deal, but the real Chinese stance perhaps would be exposed after the 45-nation NSG meeting. Though China has not so far disclosed what would be its possible move in the NSG where a discussion is expected to take place to grant a special waiver for India, but the media and experts views emanating from Beijing outlines two broad points. First, the Chinese would prompt a discussion that India should sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehen-sive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) before it gets its ultimate profit from the deal. Second, the Chinese wouldn’t miss the opportunity in highlighting the fact that Indo-US nuclear deal would alter the strategic balance in the region and it may eventually propel an arms race.

Anticipating these possible Chinese moves, it remains to be seen whether China finally is in favour of using its veto on the India-specific waiver at the NSG. It seems that it wouldn’t be easy, though not impossible, for China to use its veto at the NSG. In fact, the Chinese move would perhaps depend heavily on how the other members of the NSG reacting. Indications emanating from two major powers—Japan and Australia—that it is most unlikely they will seriously oppose the deal at the NSG. As a result, the Chinese move would depend greatly on the Scandivian countries—Denmark, Sweden and Norway—which as a matter of policy, have been opposed to the deal so far. Further, China’s posture could well depend upon a comparison it may draw between the Indo-US nuclear deal and a similar agreement that it had signed with the United States in 1985 (though ratified by the US Congress only in 1998). Its concern may centre on the fact that it did not get reprocessing rights for spent fuel, whereas India has obtained this right. In addition, while China had accepted bilateral US inspections, India has not done so. However, the most important aspect of the China-US nuclear cooperation agreement was extraneous provisions like China’s ties with Pakistan, its own non-proliferation record, etc.

At the moment, it appears that the Chinese strategy lies in challenging the Indo-US nuclear deal not at the bilateral level with either India or the United States but at the global level. As the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lia Jiancho stated,

It is hoped that the international community can explore and properly handle the issue by creative thinking.

As a practitioner of realpolitik, China is studying the emerging situation closely and is cautious in its approach to react to the deal. such a deal, thus helping Islamabad maintain a regional balance with India.

* It is understood that China vehemently opposes the deal, but the real Chinese stance perhaps would be exposed after the 45-nation NSG meeting. Though China has not so far disclosed what would be its possible move in the NSG where a discussion is expected to take place to grant a special waiver for India, but the media and experts views emanating from Beijing outlines two broad points. First, the Chinese would prompt a discussion that India should sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehen-sive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) before it gets its ultimate profit from the deal. Second, the Chinese wouldn’t miss the opportunity in highlighting the fact that Indo-US nuclear deal would alter the strategic balance in the region and it may eventually propel an arms race.

Anticipating these possible Chinese moves, it remains to be seen whether China finally is in favour of using its veto on the India-specific waiver at the NSG. It seems that it wouldn’t be easy, though not impossible, for China to use its veto at the NSG. In fact, the Chinese move would perhaps depend heavily on how the other members of the NSG reacting. Indications emanating from two major powers—Japan and Australia—that it is most unlikely they will seriously oppose the deal at the NSG. As a result, the Chinese move would depend greatly on the Scandivian countries—Denmark, Sweden and Norway—which as a matter of policy, have been opposed to the deal so far. Further, China’s posture could well depend upon a comparison it may draw between the Indo-US nuclear deal and a similar agreement that it had signed with the United States in 1985 (though ratified by the US Congress only in 1998). Its concern may centre on the fact that it did not get reprocessing rights for spent fuel, whereas India has obtained this right. In addition, while China had accepted bilateral US inspections, India has not done so. However, the most important aspect of the China-US nuclear cooperation agreement was extraneous provisions like China’s ties with Pakistan, its own non-proliferation record, etc.

At the moment, it appears that the Chinese strategy lies in challenging the Indo-US nuclear deal not at the bilateral level with either India or the United States but at the global level. As the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lia Jiancho stated,

It is hoped that the international community can explore and properly handle the issue by creative thinking.

As a practitioner of realpolitik, China is studying the emerging situation closely and is cautious in its approach to react to the deal.

Dr Jagannath P. Panda is a researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at jppjagannath@gmail.com

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62