The Obama administration wants China to obtain an exemption from an international nonproliferation group before lifting its opposition to Beijing's proposed sale of nuclear power reactors to Pakistan.
Such an exemption can be made only if all 46 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) agree.
China maintains that the deal with Pakistan complies with both countries' international obligations.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will travel to Beijing on Tuesday, and the sale of the reactors is expected to feature prominently in his meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
According to the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), the governments of China and Pakistan in February signed an agreement to finance construction of two new reactors — Chashma 3 and 4 — in Pakistan's Punjab province.
NSG rules prohibit the sale of sensitive nuclear technology and materials to nations that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and do not allow international monitoring of their nuclear activities. Pakistan is not a signatory to the NPT.
The U.S. has asked China to provide information on the proposed sale. Ten NSG member states also asked China to explain the deal at the group's plenary meeting in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week.
In a statement read at the meeting, China said its current and future nuclear commerce would be in compliance with its commitments to the NPT and the NSG.
That statement appears to have done little to allay U.S. concerns.
"The United States has reiterated concern that the transfer of new reactors at Chasma appears to extend beyond cooperation that was 'grandfathered' when China was approved for membership in the NSG," said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.
Mr. Clay said if not covered by the grandfather clause, "such cooperation would require a specific exception approved by consensus of the NSG, as was done for India" after the civilian nuclear agreement struck by the George W. Bush administration.
"We are still waiting for more information from China to clarify China's intended cooperation with Pakistan, in light of China's NSG commitments," Mr. Clay said.
CNNC has indicated that it intends to keep its commitment to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Beijing thinks the deal "goes along well with the international obligations China and Pakistan carry in relation to the international nuclear nonproliferation regime."
After questions were raised about the deal, CNNC inexplicably removed from its website a statement on the signing of the deal in February.
Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) said that on a visit to Beijing in March, CNNC officials had told him that a final contract had been signed with Pakistan and they would go ahead as planned.
But he said he has seen no indication that the Chinese are proceeding with the deal in the wake of the international outcry.
In a talk at CEIP on Wednesday, Mr. Hibbs said China has four options. It can:
• Decide not to export the reactors.
• Export the reactors by claiming this trade is grandfathered.
• Seek an exemption from the NSG.
• Ignore the NSG guidelines, which are voluntary.
"The U.S. doesn't really have any options. … NSG guidelines are voluntary. There is nothing the U.S. can do to prevent China from going ahead with this deal," he said.
Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told The Washington Times that "unless Washington comes up with a very, very attractive offer, the history of Chinese-Pakistani relations is such that it is unlikely that this deal will not go through."
China has helped Pakistan set up nuclear reactors since 1991, when CNNC entered into a contract with the PAEC to build Chashma 1, a 325 MW nuclear power reactor. When it joined the NSG in 2004, China cited a Sino-Pakistan framework agreement that committed it to set up a second reactor, Chashma 2, for Pakistan. That project was then considered "grandfathered" and is expected to be complete next year. CNNC and PAEC also worked out a deal to set up two separate 650 MW reactors — Chashma 3 and Chashma 4.
"You have got to hope that the Obama administration will keep China's feet to the fire and will make sure that they do not proceed with any sale to Pakistan unless it has the blessing of the NSG," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
He said the Obama administration must go on the record to clarify what an exception to the rules of the NSG for Pakistan would require.
While China is not breaking any laws, Mr. Sokolski said, "China would be making a mistake in thinking that the law is all that speaks to what it is they need to do. If they want to stay a member in good standing they have got to adhere to the rules. And the rules for that understanding are clear: they cannot make this sale without getting an exemption."
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