Written by Shivani Singh.

The nuclear nexus between China and Pakistan has continued to be a major cause of concern for the neighbouring states and a threat to the underlying foundations of the international community’s non-proliferation regimes.

This nexus is shaping decisively the geopolitical security concerns in the South Asian region. Recently, China and Pakistan signed another deal on construction of yet another 1000 Megawatt Hualong one HPR-1000 nuclear reactor at Chashma, Pakistan. Concerns regarding this tight ‘civil’ nuclear relationship between these two states stem from China’s blatant disregard of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines, weak safeguard mechanisms controlling Pakistan’s illegal diversion of nuclear material from civilian to military purposes and last, but not least, China and Pakistan’s dangerous past activities regarding nuclear proliferation.

With such unsettling precedents from the past and continuing clandestine nuclear transfers between China and Pakistan, grappling with the threats to nuclear security is becoming a formidable task for the international community.

Filling the energy gap

Pakistan faces an energy shortage of approximately 4000 Megawatts (MW). The majority of its energy needs are met through fossil fuels (approximately 62 percent) and only a miniscule portion i.e. 3.6 percent come via its commercial nuclear power plants. China has been a significant contributor to Pakistan’s civil nuclear energy needs, whereby the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNP) supplied four CNP-300 unit nuclear reactors at Chashma which are currently under commercial operation along with two Hualong one ACP-1000 unit nuclear reactors at Karachi which are yet to become operational.

As recently as November 2017, CNNP and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) signed an agreement to build a third 1000 Megawatt Hualong one HPR-1000 reactor at Chashma nuclear plant taking the total nuclear energy produced by Chinese built reactors in Pakistan to approximately 5000 MW. Such massive investments from China’s side have raised eyebrows all over the world, sowing seeds of doubt regarding its true intentions behind such a massive flow of nuclear technology and material into Pakistan.

NSG: A major bone of contention

The most compelling argument against China’s aid to Pakistan’s civil nuclear programme is China’s blatant violation of the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) export guidelines. Under the safeguards agreement of the NSG guidelines,  it is prohibited for any state to transfer nuclear technology or material to a non-nuclear weapon state such as Pakistan which has not “brought into force an agreement with the IAEA requiring the application of safeguards on all source and special fissionable material in its current and future peaceful activities”.

China justifies its nuclear transfers to Pakistan under the reasoning that it concluded the ‘Agreement for Co-operation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy’ with Pakistan, prior to joining the NSG in 2004. Hence, all the nuclear reactors built by China in Pakistan are said to be ‘grandfathered’ from the same agreement and hence worthy of the ‘exception clause’ under the NSG guidelines 1 in paragraph 4(b) and (c).

As is obvious, no consensus has been reached amongst the NSG members on the ‘grandfather clause’ to date. However, this has not stopped China from circumventing the guidelines and using the ambiguity surrounding it to its own advantage.

Clandestine nuclear activities in Pakistan

One might ask why Pakistan’s civil nuclear programme is such a threat to nuclear security. The answer lays in the common myth that pursuit of nuclear weapons and civil nuclear technology is exclusive of one another.

Uranium is used as a fuel in most nuclear reactors and plutonium is a by-product of the operation. Incidentally, a nuclear bomb requires either Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239. Hence, once a country has access to the fissile material, all one requires is a uranium enrichment plant to obtain highly enriched uranium (HEU) or a plutonium reprocessing plant to separate weapons grade plutonium from spent nuclear waste fuel to develop nuclear weapons.

As far as fissile material goes, enriched fuel is mostly imported by Pakistan from China. China and Pakistan also recently agreed to cooperate in uranium exploration and mining. Additionally, Pakistan is said to have two uranium enrichment facilities in Kahuta and Gadwal and there are reports on a new clandestine uranium enrichment centrifuge plant being built at Kahuta along with a possible reprocessing facility coming up at Chashma.

Pakistan claims to be in adherence with the international commitments on nuclear non-proliferation as it has put its civil nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. However, one needs to take note that since Pakistan is not party to the NPT and neither are they a signatory to the Additional Protocol under IAEA, the current safeguards in place merely allow for ad hoc inspections and voluntary photographic surveillance. There are no provisions of stringent mapping of all parts of the state’s nuclear fuel cycle. Besides, all of Pakistan’s “unsafeguarded nuclear facilities are military in nature and hence unlikely to be out under IAEA safeguards”.

Conclusion: An unsettling past and uncertain future

As Samuel P Huntington writes in his ‘Clash of Civilisations’, China has been the biggest contributor to Pakistan’s nuclear programme, which has been in the form of “furnishing Pakistan with Uranium for enrichment, advising on bomb design, and supplying Pakistan with M-11, 300 kilometers range ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons.”

With such unsettling precedents from the past and continuing clandestine nuclear transfers between China and Pakistan, grappling with the threats to nuclear security is becoming a formidable task for the international community. Therefore, it is prudent that nuclear material and technology exchange between these two countries, even in the name of civil nuclear cooperation, is monitored with hawkish eyes. Along with that, gaping holes in the current nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security regimes need to be addressed in order to curb violations by any state.

Shivani Singh is a research analyst at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, India. She completed her Master’s in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India and received her Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Hindu College, University of Delhi, India. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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