China will display its determination to bolster ties with Pakistan this week, when visiting President Asif Ali Zardari is sure to receive effusive vows of loyalty, and perhaps firmer signs about a nuclear power project that symbolises the two neighbours’ strategic embrace.
Zardari’s visit, starting on Tuesday, appears meant to show that Beijing wants to ensure that Islamabad stays an “all-weather friend” while it frets about U.S. influence on its doorstep from India to Afghanistan.
He will meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao for talks that may open the way to more Chinese investment in Pakistan, and possibly firm up Beijing’s commitment to expanding the Chashma nuclear power complex in Punjab province.
Beijing has been preparing to build two new reactors at Chashma, where it has already built one and is finishing another, despite the qualms of Washington, New Delhi and other capitals.
China’s willingness to risk foreign ire over the nuclear expansion shows its intensified commitment to Pakistan, said Andrew Small, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who has studied China’s ties with Pakistan.
“For China, the counter-balancing element of the Pakistan relationship is more important than it was a few years ago,” Small said by telephone from Brussels, where he is based.
Chinese experts privately described the Chashma deal as a “counter-weight” to the partnership between India and the United States, who signed a nuclear power pact in 2008 that was dogged by controversy, said Small.
“With rising India, and the India-U.S. factor, China’s traditional element of backing Pakistan is back more in play,” he said. Rivals India and Pakistan both possess nuclear arsenals and refuse to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would oblige them to scrap those arsenals. China says the safeguards in place at Chashma ensure its role is entirely peaceful.
But critics say Pakistan’s domestic instability and its past role spreading nuclear arms technology demand that Chashma come under firmer international vetting. Faced with these misgivings, China is unlikely to trumpet the project during Zardari’s visit.
Beijing appears confident, however, that its plans to expand Chashma will not falter over possible opposition from the United States and its Western allies, said several experts.
Washington had little room to oppose outright the Chashma deal after it sealed its own energy pact with New Delhi, the experts said.
“To alienate Pakistan is not in the U.S. interest”, Jing-dong Yuan, an expert on China’s nuclear security policies at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.
“But behind the scenes, the U.S. may do something to get some deals or concessions out of this (Chashma) -- to push China and Pakistan to do something by offering some assurances,” said Yuan.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has been tight-lipped about the deal to build the reactors at Chashma, but a trickle of announcements from Chinese nuclear companies shows they are preparing to start work at the site.
Chashma also offers Chinese nuclear exporters an opportunity to hone their prowess in building reactors abroad, said Mark Hibbs, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has closely followed developments over Chashma.
“The Chinese nuclear companies see Pakistan as a springboard,” said Hibbs, noting Beijing’s ambitions to expand its exports of reactors. “This additional construction project at Chashma helps keep them in the game.”
But Beijing faces international worries about the expansion. China is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 46-country body that seeks to regulate atomic technology exports.
To receive nuclear exports, nations that are not one of the five officially recognised atomic weapons states must usually place all their nuclear activities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, say NSG rules.
When the United States sealed its nuclear power agreement with India in 2008, it wrangled a waiver from that rule. Washington has said China should seek a similar exemption for the planned reactors in Pakistan.
But Beijing stayed tight-lipped about Chashma at an NSG meeting last month and has not publicly sought an exemption. Such a bid would probably be opposed by some member states worried about Pakistan or what they see as the damaging precedent of another waiver to the usual nuclear export rules, said Hibbs.
“If there were an exemption process, it would be a Pandora’s Box,” he said.
As alternatives, China may ignore the NSG altogether -- its rules are voluntary -- or claim the planned Chashma plants were “grandfathered” under an agreement in place when China joined the Group in 2004, and so do not need another waiver. Outside of China, few governments or experts believe that claim.
Western powers ultimately may have to choose between protecting ties with Beijing and Pakistan or risking a diplomatic brawl.
“People don’t want to get into an immediate fight with China before it seems absolutely necessary,” said Small.