In Asian power game, China wants its own rules to apply

  • Kanwal Sibal
  • Updated: May 31, 2016 02:38 IST
Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) with his Pakistani counterpart Mamnoon Hussain (L) and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R). China has been the biggest proliferator with its well established nuclear transfers to Pakistan. (AFP)

On the heels of its provocative step to prevent the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee from designating Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist, China has publicly opposed India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). In both cases China’s “all weather friendship” with Pakistan and disdain for India’s reaction have influenced the decision-making. China’s policy of trying to box India in the subcontinent is being stretched to the point of treating both the terrorism and NSG membership issues as ones of managing India-Pakistan rivalries.

Read | ‘In-depth’ talks needed for India’s entry into nuclear group: China

China would want to deprive India of diplomatic advantage over its “iron” ally in forums where it can hold up consensus. It has chafed at the India-US nuclear deal, openly questioning US “favouritism” towards India and advocated a similar deal for Pakistan. Its decision to build two additional nuclear power plants beyond the two it “grandfathered” while joining the NSG is a violation of its NSG commitments. It was intended as a signal to the US that it cannot have a monopoly on decisions on non-proliferation matters and that China can balance the US nuclear gesture towards India with one of its own towards Pakistan.

Read | Pakistan’s nuclear program threatens the world, not just India

Undeterred by its egregious proliferation record (the AQ Khan affair), blocking of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) negotiations in Geneva, the frenetic build up of its nuclear assets, the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons in the sub-continent, and its public threats to use nuclear weapons against India, Pakistan is aggressively seeking parity of treatment with India on nuclear matters. It uses its irresponsible nuclear conduct to coerce the US/West into giving it an India-like nuclear deal as an incentive to be “responsible”.

China has been the biggest proliferator with its well-established nuclear transfers to Pakistan. Its continued nuclear cooperation with Pakistan as a non-NPT country, without any NSG exemption in the latter’s favour, is itself a serious act of proliferation. That the Chinese built reactors are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards is irrelevant, as India, before the Indo-US nuclear deal and the NSG exemption, had offered putting all its foreign-aided nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards but the proposition was not acceptable even to friendly countries like Russia and France because of their “international obligations”. In China’s case, its “civilian” nuclear cooperation with Pakistan is accompanied by the construction of reprocessing plants that are not under IAEA safeguards. It is these plants that are giving Pakistan the capability to produce plutonium and develop miniaturised warheads for tactical nuclear weapons. China is not accountable for all this activity.

Read | No ‘wrong direction’: Obama cautions India, Pak on nuclear arsenals

Just as in Masood Azhar’s case the Chinese explanations for its position were misleading and duplicitous, China’s reasons for opposing India’s NSG membership are hollow, and even arrogant. It explains its opposition on the ground that “as a member of the UNSC we are the watchdog of the world, we must ensure that rules are followed. And we must also think it is not just India who wants an exception to the rules”. Humbug apart, this is an astonishing language of entitlement and privilege. China feels it must follow the rules as a global watchdog when it comes to India and the NSG, but is not obliged to do so when it comes to the East China and South China Seas. It pleads helplessness in having to oppose India because the rules were made by western powers and “we just have to maintain them”, ignoring conveniently its repeated tilting at the West-imposed international rules governing the international system. China finds it normal to defy these rules in the western Pacific, where it wants its own rules to apply. Its concern about being the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) watchdog disappear when it protects the North Korean regime from sanctions and insists on dialogue to resolve the issue of its NPT violations.

Read | Maritime power: China planning to build floating nuclear power plant

Read | Beijing to build nuclear power platforms in South China Sea

China — after opposing the NPT as discriminatory for years — is now taking the position that only NPT countries can be members of the NSG. Russia, US, France and the UK, all four recognised nuclear weapon states under the NPT, do not take this position. The US, which initiated the NSG as a stringent export control mechanism to deny access to certain critical nuclear technologies even to NPT member states, has repeatedly said that India is eligible for NSG membership and is committed to making it happen. The NSG is just an ad hoc body, it is not a treaty. The logic of China demanding that India sign the NPT in order to become an NSG member is malevolent on another count. India cannot sign the NPT as a nuclear weapon state as the NPT has been permanently extended without any scope for amendment. China is therefore implicitly asking India to sign as a non-nuclear weapon state, which means dismantling its weapons programme under international supervision. This is consistent with its non-recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state. The arrogance of this position is astounding.

In the past, before high level visits, China has staged provocations as part of both engaging India and pressuring it. Significantly, it chose to pique India just before President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to China. This way China maintains the upper hand and sets the terms of the relationship. In any case, having been cajoled by president Bush to agree to the NSG exemption for India, China has already yielded on substance. The purpose of blocking India’s NSG membership therefore makes little sense apart from power politics to boost its client Pakistan and diminish India’s standing. As regards the argument that China has hardened its position because India is drawing closer to the US, it needs recalling that Xi had in effect proposed a G2 to Obama.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary. The views expressed are personal.

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