India of Two Minds: Reactions to the Pending China-Pakistan Nuclear Deal

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By Jessie Cleveland – Indian strategic analysts are of two minds since being confronted this year with the possibility of a China-Pakistan nuclear deal: they can view the deal as antagonistic or inconsequential. 

India has reason to be concerned about a further blossoming nuclear friendship between China and Pakistan, its two greatest adversaries. Indian analysts have also expressed concern over the further weakening of the global nonproliferation regime, drawing the distinction between their deal with the United States, which was approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and China’s deal with Pakistan, which will be finalized by bilateral agreement.

Pakistan’s nuclear cooperation agreement with China is unlikely to affect the regional balance. China has supplied Pakistan with ballistic missiles in the past, and is widely reported to have provided the design of a nuclear weapon. China also has helped Pakistan build nuclear power plants.   The China-Pakistan nuclear deal may expand Pakistan’s bomb-making capacity if its facilities are removed from safeguards, though Pakistan is already competing effectively using facilities dedicated to military purposes.

Dr. Ch. Viyyanna Sastry, a research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, speculates that assistance from China highlights its status as a nuclear energy supplier country, the importance that China attaches to Pakistan, and China’s selective compliance with international regimes.

In this context, Indian analysts have raised several concerns about the prospect of additional nuclear cooperation. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal questions China’s motivation for this deal in an article published earlier this summer. He asks how it makes sense to China, to expand the nuclear base of Pakistan when the situation there remains highly unstable and uncertain. Sibal then answers his own question, that “the Chinese decision is an attempt to tilt the strategic balance in Pakistan’s favor.”

China’s deal with Pakistan follows on the heels of the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. The Bush administration sought and received an exemption for India from the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was created to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. China’s provision of two additional civilian nuclear reactors to energy-deficient Pakistan appears to be a violation of its commitments to the NSG. 

Former Indian Ambassador T.P. Srinavasan differentiated between these two deals in an article also published this summer, where he argued that the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement and the China-Pakistan nuclear deal are in no way comparable.  Srinavasan bases his conclusions on the historical precedent of both nations, arguing that India has a record of responsible behavior, pressing energy needs, and cooperation with the international community. Pakistan, he argues, operates above the proliferation rule of law, selling to clients in North Korea, Libya, and Iran; compiling a nuclear arsenal far in excess of the minimum deterrence that the country is supposed to possess; and blocking negotiations on dealing with fissionable material precisely to gain time to accumulate it.

Some Indian analysts do not view the China-Pakistan deal as a threat to India. Bharat Karnad of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, argues that for India to become a great power, it must look beyond its concerns over Pakistan and “see Pakistan for what it is, not a threat but a strategic nuisance.” If the China-India relationship is positively progressing, and if India needs to focus its attentions elsewhere, then worry over this deal is misplaced. 

The Government of India appears to be siding with those who are down-playing the China-Pakistan nuclear deal. In a May press conference, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao deferred questions on the China-Pakistan nuclear deal to the NSG, saying that the matter was under examination and that the government would wait to see if guidelines were fully applied before commenting on the situation.  Later, in August, Foreign Secretary Rao characterized the collaboration between China and India as a “very complex relationship,” in need of “mutual sensitivity to each other’s core concerns, as well as to seek broader convergence on many global issues” as both nations move forward. 

Still, India’s moves are limited. Outlook Associate Foreign Editor Pranay Sharma notes, “India has tried to put a brave face saying the deal doesn’t affect it. But this is because…India can’t stop the deal.” Similarly, academic Harsh V. Prant stipulates, “With or without the NSG approval, nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan will only intensify in the coming years as China becomes more assertive in pursuing its interests.” If New Delhi officially endorses the qualms of some Indian analysts, it is unlikely to have practical effect. Concerns would instead clarify India’s inability to alter the outcome and would drawn unwelcome attention to the slippery slope resulting from the U.S.-India deal. The bottom line is this: New Delhi appears to understand that it is better to be nonchalant than powerless. 

Photo Credit: The nuclear reactor core of a Triga research reactor, 2005: US Department of Energy.


Jesse Cleveland was an intern in the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center

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