Early this week, news broke that China would provide Pakistan with Chashma-5, a 1000-MW Pressurised Water Reactor. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, not surprisingly, rejected the notion that Beijing stood in violation of several Nuclear Suppliers Group and International Atomic Energy Agency norms, claiming that Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation was only for peaceful purposes. The Chashma Nuclear Power Complex in Pakistani Punjab already contains two 300 MW reactors (online in 2000 and 2011) built by China and has two more 340 MW reactors under construction (expected criticality 2016 and 2017). Experts are not sure whether the fifth reactor is an upgrade to the third one or a new reactor altogether.

China joined the NSG in 2004, and that should have been the end of clandestine Chinese nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. However, Beijing insisted that the third and fourth reactors at Chashma were part of the original deal struck before China joined the international nuclear controls body (2000) and grandfathered them in. The fifth reactor, however, or further upgrades to the existing reactors, is not part of any known clause in the Sino-Pakistani nuclear agreement on Chashma.

Interestingly, Beijing may not have violated any international commitment in their nuclear trade with Pakistan – while strong evidence suggests that the China National Nuclear Corporation assisted Pakistan in manufacturing weapons in the late 1980s, China had not acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty until 1992; the NPT only makes it incumbent upon non-nuclear states party to the treaty to submit to IAEA inspections and is quiet on the matter of verification of such inspections by nuclear states. China’s membership of the NSG came in 2004, and though the group’s guidelines clearly prohibit the transfer of a whole array of nuclear material, they are neither law nor are they backed up by enforcement provisions beyond international opprobrium.

China has continually peddled the view that its 1985 nuclear agreement with Pakistan allows it to grandfather in the sale of nuclear reactors and other related material. The United States has always rejected this interpretation but mutedly, for lack of the power to enforce and its own geostrategic calculus. Furthermore, China argues that the NSG’s guidelines are biased: Russia was allowed to go through with selling India nuclear fuel in 2001 when 32 of 34 members of the NSG opposed the sale. NSG rules state that members should report any approach for nuclear trade so that the group can act uniformly, and states are expected to refrain from making exports denied by other members. Ultimately, the regime’s voluntary nature means that members may violate guidelines for their own political gains. China is also unhappy with the waiver India received from the group in 2008.

China’s position is obviously strategically motivated – it would require some impressive intellectual gymnastics to equate Pakistan’s nuclear black marketeering with India’s behaviour on nuclear exports. The international community’s silence on China’s repeated transgressions in spirit if not law ought to underscore for India what it should already know – hard power is a persuasive diplomat.

Nonetheless, India need not worry too much about the latest Chinese transgression; the Chashma-5 reactor is likely to be far safer than its predecessors (a real concern with Chashma-1), and being a PWR (a kind of Light Water Reactor), far less suitable for military appropriation than a Heavy Water Reactor. However, the principle of nuclear cooperation, licit or otherwise, between India’s two rivals ought to concern India. It is a pity that India’s government is content with mere protests and statements of concern while India’s strategic analysts only rail about the nuclear control regime’s double standards – the convenient memory lapse for incidents favouring India is perhaps because the general impression in the country is that India has been a more responsible nuclear power and has been the beneficiary of far less largesse than its neighbour.

India must consider the situation it finds itself in as punishment for its unwarranted moralising about nuclear weapons and romanticism regarding international affairs, not just under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru but to this day. Barring a few exceptions that prove the rule, Raisina Hill has been unable to think strategically or decisively over a myriad of issues, not the least of which relate to defence, foreign policy, or science & technology.

India has failed to realise its nuclear dream – not only is the country decades away from commercial deployment of thorium reactors, India is yet to start its Fast Breeder Reactor programme; furthermore, India’s stocks of fissile material is unbelievably low, and though it has modified the Canadian CANDU reactor for domestic use, it has been unable to create and export any completely Indian IPR product. Unfortunately, Indian manufacturing lacks the capability to make some of the components of nuclear reactors to satisfactorily high quality. India’s underdeveloped uranium mining and even worse uranium prospecting has forced it to seek the assistance of an international nuclear deal, the whole need for which was to be obviated by Homi Bhabha’s three-stage nuclear programme.

The nuclear establishment cannot blame its failure on the civilian front on an aggressive effort on the military front – India has conducted only six tests until date, a number most experts consider too small for Indian scientists to be able to do any simulations. In addition, there are rumours that most of the tests generated lower yields than expected and that the thermonuclear device in the 1998 tests failed to achieve fusion. As a result, India’s nuclear arsenal remains small, unreliable, and bulky.

Rather than bemoan its state, New Delhi must work to negate the stranglehold the nuclear exports control regime has on it. India needs to focus on its thorium reactor research and initiate its stage-II FBRs with priority. It would behoove India’s nuclear establishment to inquire about other nuclear reactor designs such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor or the High Temperature Graphite Reactor – while not commercially active, both have been tested, are proliferation-resistant, and use thorium (something India has plenty of) as fuel. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre must be tasked with improving and creating new and better reactor designs with 100% Indian IPR content; Indian industry must be able to manufacture and export nuclear material, from fuel, reactors and components, to heavy water. In essence, India should be able to run a parallel NSG if it so wishes.

Clearly, all this will be a 20-year programme at the very least. Yet India did not find itself at this juncture because of one policy decision; undoing over six decades of lackadaisical planning by bloviating officials in a third the time is no mean feat. The impotence India feels now simply the wages of sins past. Ironically, India would do well to take a page from former Chinese Premier, Deng Xiaoping’s book, namely: (1) lengjing guancha — observe and analyze [developments] calmly; (2) chenzhuo yingfu — deal [with changes] patiently and confidently; (3) wenzhu zhenjiao — secure [our own] position; (4) taoguang yanghui — conceal [our] capabilities and avoid the limelight; (5) shanyu shouzhuo — be good at keeping a low profile; (6) juebu dangtou — never become a leader; (7) yousuo zuowei — strive to make achievements.

Wise words from a man and a people who know how to quietly build their capabilities and await their turn at global leadership.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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