Nuclear meeting ends amid divisions over Pakistan

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Image caption,
China wants to become a major exporter of nuclear technology

A meeting of countries exporting civil nuclear technology has ended with uncertainty about Chinese plans to sell two nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

Such a deal would appear to be against the rules set by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

But the group's annual meeting, held in New Zealand, has revealed divisions in the international response.

China also seems hesitant about spelling out its intentions.

What many NSG members wanted from the Chinese at the meeting in Christchurch was clarity.

Is Beijing really intending to sell two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan? And if so how will it go about it?

This is a highly-divisive issue since any such deal would appear to break the NSG's guidelines.

These rule out the export of civil nuclear technology to countries like Pakistan that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that are known to have developed nuclear weapons.

British misgivings

Several governments were highly sceptical about any further nuclear trading with Pakistan.

In Britain, diplomats accept that Pakistan's energy needs are "huge and increasing".

But the official view in London is that "the time is not yet right for a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan".

This was certainly the view of a number of other NSG members.

The United States too had raised concerns, not least given Pakistan's record as a proliferator of nuclear and missile technology.

In terms of the NSG guidelines, India was in a similar position to Pakistan.

But in 2008 the US pushed through an exemption at the Nuclear Suppliers Group enabling India to buy civil nuclear technology abroad.

And going into this meeting China's logic seemed to be that if the US could get a deal for its friend - India - then China should be able to do the same for its ally - Pakistan.

But in the event China had very little to say. The meeting ended without any clarification of China's intentions regarding Pakistan.

It simply said that any nuclear commerce with Pakistan would be in accordance with it's international obligations.

Nuclear experts believe that the outcome of the Christchurch meeting indicates that the Chinese have not yet decided how they want to play this.

Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has this assessment of China's position: "China was asked by NSG members to spell out its intentions in this matter and it didn't do that.

"China may be feeling international pressure and will therefore carefully weigh the pluses and minuses of all its options before going ahead with this."

Selling more reactors to Pakistan while keeping within the NSG guidelines represents something of a diplomatic conundrum. Other countries will have to be persuaded to go along with the deal.

And it is going to require a lot more information and transparency on the part of the Chinese if Beijing is to have any chance of winning over the sceptics.

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