China's decision to sell nuclear reactors to Pakistan, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is posing a challenge to the Obama administration's commitment to curb the spread of nuclear technology.
Analysts see in the administration's muted response a reluctance to press China at the risk of losing its support for sanctions on Iran and a hesitation to upset a delicate relationship with Pakistan, which the U.S. views as a key ally in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
According to China National Nuclear Corp., the governments of China and Pakistan in February signed an agreement to finance construction of two reactors in Pakistan's Punjab province. The rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) prohibit the sale of sensitive nuclear technology and materials to nations that have not joined the NPT and do not allow international monitoring of their nuclear activities.
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the sale of Chinese reactors to Pakistan would undermine the NSG.
"It would be a shame if this administration, which prides itself on reducing nuclear threats, should itself wink at China trading in sensitive nuclear technology to Pakistan outside of the nuclear rules," he said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the China-Pakistan agreement is "deeply troubling because we have China engaging in civil nuclear trade with a country that does not meet the requirements of the NSG for such trade."
"The U.S. has other diplomatic equities that are at stake with China and Pakistan, but this is a very fundamental issue, and if the Obama administration is serious about nonproliferation, it should be concerned," Mr. Kimball said.
He said the Obama administration should insist at the NSG that these new projects be discussed and deemed unallowable.
Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said he doubts the NSG will consider the matter until China informs it of the planned export. In the meantime, NSG states are waiting on the U.S. to take the lead on this issue in advance because Pakistan has raised it with the U.S. in their bilateral security dialogue, he said.
China has helped Pakistan set up nuclear reactors since the early 1990s, when it helped build a 325-megawatt power plant called Chashma 1. When China joined the NSG in 2004, it cited a deal it had to set up Chashma 2 in Pakistan — a project the NSG considered "grandfathered."
China and Pakistan have worked out a deal to set up two 650-megawatt reactors — Chashma 3 and Chashma 4, which "were contracted after China was made a member of the NSG. They don't count," said Mr. Sokolski, making the case that these projects not be included in the "grandfather clause."
Chinese officials declined to say whether China has approached the NSG to "grandfather" the new reactors.
Mr. Hibbs predicts that China's decision to flout NSG guidelines will upset many NSG members.
"It can be expected that many non-nuclear weapons states at the Review Conference will not be pleased if they are informed that, after the U.S.-India deal transgressed against a key NPT principle not to export power reactors to non-nuclear weapons states without comprehensive safeguards, China was prepared to brush aside the NSG guideline again by exporting more reactors to Pakistan," he said.
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said civilian nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan "fully complies with the two countries' respective international obligations. The cooperation is transparent, only for peaceful purpose and subject to IAEA supervision."
Mr. Hibbs said Chinese officials had informed him that China sought to export two reactors to Pakistan for Chashma 3 and Chashma 4, and were of the opinion that Pakistan "should be compensated" for the U.S.-India nuclear deal.
Pakistan has sought a similar civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. to the one the Bush administration struck with India, but the Obama administration has been cool to the idea.
"If the United States were not to register opposition to China's new exports, that would signal the United States under Obama was prepared to brush off an important nuclear nonproliferation norm on grounds of political expediency. … [T]acit U.S. acquiescence would seriously damage the NSG's credibility as a rule maker for nuclear trade," Mr. Hibbs wrote in a recent paper.
He added that the United States "may also tolerate China's new nuclear deal with Pakistan because Obama wants China's support for United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran this spring."