China Responds to the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 7

China’s opposition to the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal finalized during President Bush’s New Delhi visit in March 2006 has now emerged as a new source of tension in India-China relations. Just as it did last year to effectively sabotage India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, China has now launched a diplomatic offensive to block any changes in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) guidelines to accommodate India in the field of dual-use technology. Significantly, the Chinese opposition to the nuclear pact is in contrast to the support for the deal from Russia, France, Australia, Britain, Canada and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Arguing that “the U.S.-India nuclear deal would destroy nonproliferation efforts,” China wants India to dismantle its nuclear weapons and sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (Xinhua, March 4; Reuters, March 3). Beijing’s stance emboldens the opponents of the deal in the U.S. Congress where it faces strong domestic resistance. Beijing has also sharply rebuked Washington’s attempts to have the NSG guidelines amended to facilitate nuclear energy cooperation with India, and pressured Australia to maintain its embargo on uranium sales to India. Clearly, China would not countenance any challenge to its status as the sole Asian Nuclear Weapon State (as per the NPT) and as the sole Asian permanent member of the UN Security Council, nor would it sit idle in the event of a threat to its preeminence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Chinese Fury

Reacting to the deal, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang stressed that U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation must conform to the rules of the global nonproliferation regime. Qin added that current international safeguards on nuclear weapons were the hard-won product of many countries’ efforts and should not be weakened by exceptions (Xinhua, March 3). This point was later emphasized in a China Daily (March 7) opinion piece:

“The United States’ making an exception to accommodate India, driven by geopolitical considerations, has sent repercussions through the international nonproliferation infrastructure. The double standards will very likely complicate the nuclear issues of Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea all the more…Now the international community is presented with a big question: How can the effectiveness and binding power of the nonproliferation system be guaranteed?”

The tone for both official Chinese reaction and critical media commentaries was set earlier by Renmin Ribao (October 26, 2005), which accused Washington of being soft on India and warned that if the US made a “nuclear exception” for India, other powers [i.e., China] would do the same with their friends [read Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, and Burma] and weaken the global nonproliferation regime: “Now that the United States buys another country in with nuclear technologies in defiance of an international treaty, other nuclear suppliers also have their own partners of interest as well as good reasons to copy what the United States did…A domino effect of nuclear proliferation, once turned into reality, will definitely lead to global nuclear proliferation and competition.”

Broadly speaking, the Chinese critique of the deal centers around three key themes: double standards; Washington’s containment of China by tilting toward India; and the possible unraveling of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Double Standards: Look who’s talking

It is ironic that China—a three-decade long opponent of the NPT and a major nuclear proliferator—is opposing the U.S.-India nuclear civilian energy deal by presenting itself as a great champion of nuclear nonproliferation. Beijing’s record of proliferation includes having helped in the development of Pakistan’s and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. China was the last nuclear power to sign the NPT in 1992. Two years after joining the NPT, China transferred 5,000 ring magnets to Islamabad in 1994 to sustain the Pakistani centrifuge operations in a clear violation of the NPT. China is constructing two nuclear power reactors in Pakistan. China has also supplied equipment and materials to Iran for its nuclear and missile programs. Chinese bomb design drawings were recovered from Libya in 2003, and until today the Chinese have not made public the results of their “investigation” launched in February 2004 (China Brief, April 29, 2004).

Nor have the Chinese government and media ever been “worried” about the notorious “Nuclear Bazaar” run by the Pakistani scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan. Given Dr. Khan’s close links with and numerous visits to the Chinese nuclear establishment, it is also inconceivable that Chinese security agencies were unaware of Pakistan’s nuclear dealings with North Korea, Iran and Libya. Repeated sanctions imposed by the Bush administration against China’s state-run companies for engaging in proliferation activities even after Beijing was admitted into the NSG in 2004 indicate that China’s liaisons with would-be bomb-makers may have not ended completely. In sharp contrast with the China-Pakistan duo, India never proliferated nuclear weapons material or technology to any other state (despite multi-billion dollars offers from Libya, Iraq, and Taiwan).

Containment: Who’s containing whom?

Another major criticism of the deal is that Washington is seeking to contain China through India—even at the cost of undercutting nuclear nonproliferation. This criticism flies in the face of the reality of China’s own four-decade-old policy of building up Pakistan to contain India. China remains involved in upgrading Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. News reports suggest that China and Pakistan are currently negotiating the purchase of 6 to 8 new Chinese nuclear power reactors. An article (International Studies, February 6, 2006) by Zhang Weiwei of the Chinese Foreign Ministry-affiliated China Institute of International Studies acknowledges that “Pakistan enjoys an edge over India in the nuclear sector”—a feat difficult for Islamabad to accomplish without Chinese inputs.

A week prior to President Bush’s India visit, Beijing hosted General Musharraf and concluded new deals on advanced conventional weaponry and nuclear power plants. This prompted Musharraf to boast at a press conference in Islamabad, which was repeatedly broadcast on Pakistani state media, that “they [India and the U.S.] should be ready for worse times coming…we have substitutes and they know why I went there [China] before his [Bush’s] visit.” More significantly, in a little-reported comment, Musharraf’s Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, told Chinese television (February 20, 2006) that “Pakistan will stand by China if the United States ever tries to ‘besiege’ it.” Interestingly, the day after Bush’s India visit, Beijing announced a 15 percent increase in its defense spending.

The fact that much of the talk about the containment of China originates from China itself, and not from the region or the U.S., can be attributed to 4 major reasons. The first is Beijing’s own Cold War experience during 1971-1989 when China aligned itself with the U.S. to contain the U.S.S.R. Beijing now suspects that India could play a similar American card against China. Second is to propagate the notion of China as a victim of great power machinations. This stance also helps the CCP legitimize its rule and garner domestic and international support. Third, it preempts any criticism of Chinese support for rogue regimes, human rights and intellectual property rights violations, excessive militarization, mercantilist trade practices, internet censorship and the like. Finally, it diverts attention from or deflects any criticism of China’s own containment of the U.S., Japan and India.

China is clearly uneasy about evolving U.S. ties with India and Japan. Despite protestations to the contrary from India and the United States that New Delhi is unwilling and unlikely to play the role of a closely aligned U.S. surrogate as Japan, China’s Asia strategy is based on the assumption that the U.S., Japan and India would eventually form an informal trilateral strategic alliance. Even as they increasingly cooperate in the economic sphere, Indian-Chinese military competition is a foregone conclusion.

Unraveling the Nonproliferation Regime: Who’s done it?

Thirdly, Beijing’s warnings about the potential unraveling of the nonproliferation regime lack credibility. China bears responsibility for undermining the regime because of its penchant for playing “the proliferation card” in its relations with major powers. It is worth recalling that China’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities in violation of its nonproliferation treaty commitments helped create the context in which India decided to unveil its nuclear weapons in 1998 and the U.S. opted for missile defense and eventually cut a deal to bring India into the nonproliferation fold. If anything, the U.S.-India deal would strengthen the nonproliferation regime by placing 14 out of 22 Indian nuclear reactors under the IAEA safeguards, thereby significantly reducing the quantity of weapons-grade fissile material from 80 percent to 35 percent.

Beijing’s contention that other nuclear aspirants such as Iran and North Korea would now feel emboldened is specious. There is little guarantee that they will give up their nuclear programs even if the U.S.-India deal is abandoned. Those who have abetted and supported two of the world’s most dangerous regimes (notably, the Soviet Union/Russia, China and Pakistan’s Dr. Khan) bear primary responsibility for the potential unraveling of the nonproliferation regime.

As in the past, China’s attitude toward the nonproliferation regime will determine its future. The Chinese might step up nuclear proliferation in India’s neighborhood (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and perhaps Bangladesh and Burma) to countervail the U.S.-India ties. Washington may as well forget about securing Beijing’s help to sanction Teheran if India is to be cut loose with the proposed nuclear deal. Yet before the U.S.-India deal tempts the hawkish PLA generals to undermine the nonproliferation regime, they should ponder whether its collapse is in China’s security interests as it might end in the nuclearization of Japan, Taiwan and even Vietnam.


China is breathing fire over the U.S.-India nuclear agreement that reverses decades of U.S. policy to allow India, once a nuclear pariah, access to civilian nuclear technology to meet its soaring energy needs. China is concerned over what it sees as a pro-India tilt in U.S. policy. Beijing seeks to either make India’s NSG membership conditional upon it signing the NPT as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State or block India’s entry without Pakistan also getting into the NSG. Beijing seeks to prevent India from breaking free of the nuclear chains because it fears that if India is let in into the exclusive Nuclear Club, it will soon be knocking on the doors of the exclusive UN Security Council P-5 Club as well, and this would significantly erode China’s regional leverage and global influence.