By Howard LaFranchi
Washington–China wants to sell two nuclear reactors to Pakistan. The Obama administration thinks thatâ€™s a bad idea â€“ but how to oppose that plan while dodging charges of hypocrisy, given the administration only last year sealed a US deal to supply India with civilian nuclear equipment? And how to press to halt the intended sale while preserving relations with two crucial partners, China and Pakistan?
The China-Pakistan deal will come up next week when the 46-country Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meets in New Zealand.
The US will argue â€“ somewhat uncomfortably, given the US-India deal â€“ that the proposed sale to Pakistan violates the international bodyâ€™s standards. China is expected to counter that what would be a lucrative deal for one of its state-owned companies should be â€œgrandfatheredâ€ because the two reactors are part of a deal that actually predates Chinaâ€™s 2004 membership in the NSG, which monitors nuclear transactions.
Administration officials this week tried to put diplomatic dressing on US opposition to the sale.
â€œWe have asked China to clarify the details of its sale of additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan,â€ said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, at a briefing Tuesday. The US does not buy the Chinese argument that this sale should be considered part of a preexisting deal with Pakistan, he added.
â€œThis appears to extend beyond cooperation that was grandfathered when China was approved for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group,â€ he said.
A day earlier, State Department spokesman Gordon DuGuid said the US â€œexpects Beijing to cooperate with Pakistan in ways consistent with Chinese nonproliferation obligations.â€ As a signatory to the NSG, China would appear to be violating international guidelines against selling nuclear materials to a non-signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Like India, Pakistan has never joined the NPT.
The US stance is thus that China would require an exemption from the NSG to complete the two-reactor sale â€“ a hard-won nod the US achieved for the India deal, but one US officials doubt would be forthcoming from the group in the China-Pakistan case.
â€œWe believe that such [China-Pakistan] cooperation would require a specific exemption approved by consensus of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as was done for India,â€ Mr. Crowley said, adding that the US is seeking to apply the same test of international scrutiny as was required for the US-India deal. â€œWeâ€™re not looking at any difference between the two.â€
But some nuclear nonproliferation experts say the US opened the door to deals like Chinaâ€™s by pursuing a deal with India that will provide nuclear materials and technology to a country that is a non-signatory of the NPT and thus outside international inspection requirements.
â€œTwo wrongs make a wrong, but it was to be expected once we made the case for an exemption [for the US-India deal],â€ says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
China may very well see the controversy coming and move to put off any discussion of the sale at the NSG, Mr. Sokolski says. US officials have told him that China is now expected to say the deal is still in negotiations, making any NSG discussion premature.
But Sokolski says that sooner or later the US, which wants Chinaâ€™s cooperation on other issues like Iran, will still be faced with the repercussions of the US-India nuclear agreement.
â€œThe Chinese will back off for the moment to prevent embarrassment,â€ he says. â€œBut in the long run the problem will persist, and when it comes back around I fear we will roll.â€