Concerns Proliferating

China confirms nuclear deal with Pakistan

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, center, is escorted by his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, June 2012 / AP
March 26, 2013

China confirmed this week it will sell a new 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor to Pakistan that the United States says would violate Beijing’s obligations under a nuclear supplier control group.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was asked Monday about a report in the Free Beacon March 22 that first disclosed the secret agreement for the reactor reached last month in Beijing between the China National Nuclear Corp. and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.

"China has noted the relevant report," Hong told reporters in Beijing.

Normally, Chinese government spokesmen deny such reports and label them "groundless" as a way to avoid comment. The spokesman’s use of the phrase "noted the relevant report" is unusual and a tacit admission the report is accurate.

U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials privately said the agreement was reached in Beijing during a visit by a high-level Pakistani delegation of nuclear industry officials from Feb. 15 to 18.

The Chinese at the meeting urged Pakistan to keep the deal secret to avoid expected international opposition by states that say the sale violates China’s commitment to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 46-member association aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

China agreed in 2004 not to sell additional reactors to Pakistan’s Chashma nuclear facility beyond the two reactors that began operating in 2000 and 2011.

However, Hong denied the sale violates the voluntary NSG guidelines.

"The cooperation between China and Pakistan does not violate relevant principles of the Nuclear Suppliers Group," he said. "In recent years, China and Pakistan do indeed carry out some joint projects related to civilian use of nuclear energy. These projects are for peaceful purpose only, in compliance with the international obligations shared by both countries, and they are subject to guarantee and monitor by international atomic energy organization."

However, U.S. intelligence officials said the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) is Beijing’s main nuclear weapons producer and is working to modernize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in addition to the civilian reactor construction at Chashma.

China also is working to develop Pakistan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing capabilities, the officials said.

A State Department spokesman had no immediate comment on China’s confirmation of the nuclear deal.

A Pakistani Embassy spokesman also had no immediate comment.

Richard Fisher, a China affairs specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said it was a mistake to allow China to join the NSG without first revealing its intention to build two new Chashma reactors.

The action has allowed China to gain the benefits of obtaining U.S. nuclear technology under the NSG while not having to curtail its longstanding efforts to bolster the nuclear capabilities of its client states, Fisher said.

Fisher also said there appears to be a link between China’s NSG membership in 2004 and continued sales to Pakistan and the creation of the six-party nuclear talks on North Korea’s nuclear arms program.

"Both were clearly attempts to befuddle American and other policy makers trying to confront the stark threat of nuclear proliferation," Fisher said. "The result is that China is achieving its goals, which are an ever stronger nuclear-armed Pakistan and a nuclear-armed North Korea."

The U.S. government is continuing the "delusion" that China is cooperating in U.S. efforts to stem nuclear arms proliferation, he said.

"Only when U.S. policy starts from the premise that China is the key factor that is enabling and protecting the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, will Washington have any chance of averting an age of nuclear terrorism, which Beijing believes will harm the West far more than China," Fisher said.

The nuclear deal for the Chashma 3 reactor has been known publicly since 2010 and was opposed in the past by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

According to U.S. officials, the secret pact reached in Beijing for the Chashma 3 reactor calls for CNNC to build a 1,000-megawatt power plant at the facility in the northern province of Punjab where the two other Chinese reactors are located.

The Chinese government notified all Communist Party officials and scientists within the nuclear community in China to keep the arrangement secret to avoid upsetting the meeting of the National People’s Congress, the mock parliament. The meeting between March 9 and March 17 formally named party leaders to government posts, including new President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China’s general secretary.

The Chinese also urged the Pakistanis to play down the recent handover of the Chinese-built port of Gwadar, Pakistan, to a Chinese company.

U.S. defense officials said the Chinese port is located close to the strategic ‪Gulf of Oman, where a large percentage of the world's oil passes in ships. China in the future is expected to use the port as a naval refueling stop.

The Obama administration opposes the Chinese reactor deal because it will undermine the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is viewed by the White House as a key international tool in preventing nuclear weapons proliferation.

However, the administration has not applied pressure on either China or Pakistan because of concerns about upsetting diplomatic relations.

China is a major U.S. trading partner and holds an estimated $1.1 trillion in U.S. debt holdings. Pakistan is a key state in the war on al Qaeda, hosting CIA and U.S. military drone bases. The administration also is concerned that pressuring China to end the reactor deal could undermine Beijing’s support for U.N. sanctions against Iran for its illicit nuclear program.

However, some officials in the administration are concerned that if the reactor deal is permitted, it will increase the danger of nuclear weapons proliferating.

These officials argue that the reactor deal should be blocked and the two governments sanctioned because of Pakistan’s past role in helping the nuclear arms programs of Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, considered the father of Islamabad’s nuclear arms program, led the covert supplier network during the early 2000s, and he is believed to have had tacit Pakistani government support.

The Chinese have argued in meetings of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in the past that the new reactor is allowed under the past deal with Pakistan for the two reactors.

But U.S. arms officials say China’s joining the NSG explicitly prohibited the new reactor.

The issue is expected to be discussed in June when a meeting of the NSG is set to be held in Prague.

A State Department official told the Free Beacon last week, "We remain concerned that a transfer of new reactors at Chashma appears to extend beyond the cooperation that was ‘grandfathered’ in when China was approved for membership in the NSG."

Nuclear supplier states under NSG guidelines are not permitted to sell reactors to states that do not have international safeguards.