India has received intelligence inputs saying that China has secretly resumed assistance to Pakistan’s civilian nuclear programme. The report has also been corroborated by Western intelligence agencies. China’s resumption of assistance is a possible follow up to the visit of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to Beijing on October 18. A bilateral nuclear agreement was signed during the visit. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had later said that China had agreed to set up two atomic reactors, the Chashma-3 and Chashma-4 and that the Pakistani-China Joint Atomic Commission would meet soon. The deal is expected to provide a symbolic balance to the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement.
The Chashma 3 and 4 reactors have been under cloud since China signed up to the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004. Under group guidelines, no NSG member could provide nuclear assistance to a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Beijing claimed to have ‘grandfathered’ the Chashma 3 and 4 reactors saying that it had the right to fulfil the contract with Pakistan because it had been signed before China’s entry into the NSG.
However, according to a senior government advisor, the US has demarched China about providing Pakistan reactors and declined to endorse the ‘grandfather’ clause. Beijing on its part had never given up its right to provide Pakistan the two reactors; it merely avoided angering the US for fear of sanctions.
China may have now begun preparing the ground for a transfer in expectation that the US may be too consumed with the financial crisis and the Presidential transition to take notice of any infraction of the NSG guidelines.
In the past, China has defended its nuclear cooperation to Pakistan arguing that Pakistan’s nuclear arms posture was ‘defensive’ and that the Indo-Pakistan nuclear standoff provided stability to the region.
The Chashma reactors however are supposed be safeguarded and would, in theory, not contribute to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.