Rising Asia Sinks Non Proliferation Dreams

By Harsh Pant

Two years ago when former US President George W. Bush helped end India's status as a nuclear pariah, opening the country for civilian nuclear technology sale, the long-term implications were obscure.

With Japan, a long-time critic of India's weapon bid, lining up for deals with India, and China proposing to offer similar technology to Pakistan, the geopolitical import of the 2008 Indo-US agreement is becoming clear: Japan, concerned by China's rise, wants to strengthen India while China counters the US-India partnership by helping India's nemesis Pakistan. In the process, protecting the nuclear non-proliferation regime has become more complex.

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Since the signing of the Indo-US agreement and special dispensation granted to India by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), India has signed civilian nuclear energy pacts with states as diverse as Britain, France, Russia and Canada on the one hand, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Namibia and Mongolia on the other. The start of negotiations with Japan is the latest in a long line of such agreements. China announced its own civil nuclear pact with Pakistan earlier this year though it has yet to receive a waiver from the NSG for selling technology to a country not a member of the non-proliferation treaty.

Behind seemingly innocuous agreements of civilian nuclear cooperation, India, Japan, China and Pakistan engage in a strategic balancing game that could draw in other countries, complicate the global non-proliferation agenda and raise serious security concerns about Pakistan as a Wal-Mart of illicit nuclear technology.

The US-India nuclear pact virtually rewrote the rules of the global nuclear regime by underlining India's credentials as a responsible nuclear state that should be integrated into the global nuclear order with the Bush Administration deciding to "dehyphenate" US relations with India and Pakistan. The pact creates a major exception to the US prohibition of nuclear assistance to any country that does not accept international monitoring of all its nuclear facilities. The unspoken context of the deal was US concern about China's rapid ascendance in the Asia-Pacific. Both India and the US realized that, to prevent China from dominating the Asia-Pacific, a close partnership between the world's two largest democracies was essential. The nuclear deal became the most potent symbol of US-India rapprochement.

But the deal was not merely between India and the US. Successful approval by the NSG allowed India to engage other nuclear powers in civilian nuclear trade and provided new market opportunities to major nuclear powers. Even Japan, a strong critic of India's nuclear policy, decided to fast-track negotiations for a civilian nuclear deal, planning to sign the accord during the Indian prime minister's visit to Tokyo by year-end - the first such agreement between Japan and a country that isn't a signatory to the NPT.

Though Indian-Japanese ties have blossomed in recent years on a range of issues, the nuclear issue has been a major irritant in the relationship. The new understanding between the two nations underscores Tokyo's attempts to come to terms with India's new nuclear status. Japanese nuclear companies are eager for a share of the Indian market. Given involvement of Japanese firms such as Toshiba Corp, Hitachi Ltd and Mitsubishi in US and French nuclear industries, an Indo-Japanese pact is essential for US and French civilian nuclear cooperation with India.

Beyond the commercial dimensions of the deal, political symbolism is even more critical. Such a deal would underline Japan's determination to put Indo-Japanese ties in high gear. The rise of China is a major factor in the evolution of Indo-Japanese ties as is the US attempt to build India into a major balancer in the region. Both India and Japan chafe at China's not-so-subtle attempts at preventing their rise. An Indian-Japanese civil nuclear pact would signal an Asian partnership to bring stability to the region at a time when China goes all out to dispense civilian nuclear reactors to Pakistan, putting the entire non-proliferation regime in jeopardy.

The Sino-Pakistan nuclear relationship has been the major factor wrecking the foundations of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. China's nuclear test in 1964 propelled India's nuclear weaponization culminating in India's ‘peaceful nuclear explosion' in 1974. Sino-Pakistan nuclear cooperation - involving the sharing of weapon design and missile technology in the 1990s - forced India to go overtly nuclear in 1998.

When the United States announced its civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with India in 2005, China indicated displeasure by asking India to sign the NPT and dismantle its nuclear weapons. Beijing promptly moved to make that concern pointless by declaring its own intention to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan. The not-so-subtle message was, if Washington decided to play favorites, China would do the same, confirming that China continues to view Pakistan as an asset in countering India.

Chinese authorities confirmed earlier this year that the China National Nuclear Cooperation signed an agreement with Pakistan for two new nuclear reactors at the Chashma site - Chashma III and Chashma IV - in addition to the two already under development in Pakistan. This action of China is in clear violation of the NSG guidelines that forbid nuclear transfers to countries not signatories to the NPT or not adhering to comprehensive international safeguards on their nuclear program.

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. China is concerned about deepening Indo-US relations and India's attempts to cultivate ties with states in China's periphery. The resulting priority of the Sino-Pakistani relationship is evident in Chinese polices toward South Asia.

Moreover, there's a sense in Beijing that the Obama administration would be reluctant to challenge the deal as it needs China's help on issues ranging from Iran and North Korea to the global economy. The US no longer seems to have the willingness and clout to enforce the rules requiring credible safeguards before civilian nuclear technology can be exported.

China is not only active in Pakistan. Iran has emerged as the second largest customer of China's defense industry after Pakistan, receiving critical defense technology from China, including some that violate the stated Chinese policy of adhering to the norms of the non-proliferation regime. As China becomes more assured of its rising global profile, it challenges US foreign-policy priorities, and the non-proliferation regime fast becomes the first casualty of the emerging great power politics.

It's safe to conclude that notwithstanding the hype surrounding the NPT Review Conference held in May, the nuclear non-proliferation regime as we have known it is on its last legs. And the reason is simple: the changing balance of power. The most dramatic changes in the global balance of power are taking place in Asia, and it's there that the epitaph of the non-proliferation regime is being written. International regimes merely reflect the extant distribution of power, and the non-proliferation regime is out of sync with the distribution of global power at the moment. Is it any surprise then that its credibility is rapidly eroding?

Harsh V. Pant teaches in King's College, London.

Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2010(c) Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

 

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