Beijing blusters over India's nuclear dealNEW DELHI - Will the goodwill that has been built between India and China in the recent past end up being sacrificed at the altar of improved India-US relations? In another indication that there may be trouble brewing between Beijing and New Delhi, the official Chinese media have made a frontal assault on the landmark India-US nuclear pact and cautioned of its "negative impact" on the global nuclear order.
This is the first instance of a direct and open criticism of a crucial aspect of India-US relations that has been picked up by the official Chinese machinery/organs, which previously chose to be quiet about the nuclear deal inked between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush in July.
The latest fusillade runs the risk of opening up other niggling issues between India and China, such as the border questions that have been set aside in the interest of building trade and business between the two countries.
In the past few months, Beijing has found itself ranged against India at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran and the Nuclear Supplier's Group (NSG). However, China has never publicly criticized the India-US nuclear agreement that aims to recognize India as the sixth nuclear power of the world as well as open up civilian nuclear supplies, despite being a non-signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
There have been niggling issues between India and Beijing recently. Beijing's involvement in Nepal has upset New Delhi, with it conveying its strong displeasure on the issue. Beijing has sought to explain its lack of support to India's quest for a seat in the UN Security Council due to the bracketing with Japan in the G-4 (Brazil, India, Japan and Germany).
However, there have been no such exchanges about the India-US nuclear agreement, until this frontal attack.
The Renmin Ribao, China's leading political daily, has accused Washington of being soft on India and deriding the NPT. Reproving the US of "double standards" on nuclear proliferation, the Renmin Ribao said if the US made a "nuclear exception" for India, other powers could do the same with their friends and weaken the global non-proliferation regime.
"Now that the United States buys another country in with nuclear technologies in defiance of international treaty, other nuclear suppliers also have their own partners of interest as well as good reasons to copy what the United States did," Renmin Ribao said.
"A domino effect of nuclear proliferation, once turned into reality, will definitely lead to global nuclear proliferation and competition," the paper added. The Chinese criticism of the India-US nuclear pact is in contrast to the solid support for the deal from Russia, France, Britain and Canada.
Commenting on the shift in US nuclear policy toward India, Renmin Ribao questioned: "US acts leave people more and more dubious: is it striving to prevent nuclear proliferation or actively pushing in the opposite direction?
"Always calling itself a 'guard' for nuclear proliferation prevention, the United States often condemns other countries for irresponsible transfers but this time, it hesitates not a bit in revising laws, taking the lead in 'making an exception'," for India," Renmin Ribao wrote, warning "this will bring about a series of negative impacts".
With China aggressively and openly joining the voices against the India-US nuclear deal, New Delhi's quest for nuclear technology is turning knottier by the day. A reflection of Chinese thinking comes in the face of last month's meeting of the 45-nation NSG in Vienna that put off action on the US proposal to lift restraints on transferring nuclear technology to India. According to reports, there was positive feedback to the proposal at the group's meeting, but a "decision was deferred until the future".
At the meeting, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Czech Republic and Canada were generally supportive, but Sweden and New Zealand asked "hard questions", while Japan seemed wary of the India deal, officials have been quoted. These countries want a permanent regime change rather than making an exception for India.
According to reports, China, Brazil, South Korea and Austria were among the countries that opposed any nuclear supplies to India. Countries such as South Africa, Brazil and Argentina that voluntarily dismantled their nuclear weapons program to join the non-proliferation regime are against any move to grant a special status to India.
Commenting on the Renmin Ribao piece, foreign policy analyst C Raja Mohan said, "India might be willing to countenance the talk of nuclear 'double standards' from the White Knights of the Western world like Sweden or Ireland. India, however, will be deeply troubled by at similar rhetoric from Beijing."
New Delhi, which bitterly complained about China's support for Pakistan's nuclear weapons program in the 1980s and Islamabad's missile capabilities in the 1990s, will find it a bit rich if Beijing now opposes international civilian nuclear energy cooperation with India in the name of double standards.
"India has been willing to overlook the extraordinary campaign by Beijing to defeat the attempt by the G-4 - India, Japan, Germany and Brazil - to expand the permanent membership of the UN Security Council earlier this year," Mohan said. "China explained away this campaign by saying that the target was Japan and not India. A similar campaign on denying the benefits of civilian nuclear energy cooperation to India could reopen New Delhi's many past grievances against Beijing."
Indeed, New Delhi does understand that there are vexed issues to be addressed that are going to take some time before the nuclear supplies open up. The NSG is scheduled to meet only in May unless a special meeting (there is one to discuss Iran) is called to change the rules.
There will be other tricky areas to cover, including the number of nuclear facilities India agrees to place under IAEA safeguards (by separating civilian and military installations) and how quickly it does so.
Hearings at the US Congress are going to be tough, where India's proximity with Tehran will be scrutinized. India's stand on the November 24 vote of the IAEA, that will decide whether Tehran will be referred to the UN for sanctions, will be crucial as far as support from the US is concerned.
New Delhi will also like to ensure that any exception in its case will not be used by Pakistan, which is also aiming for some nuclear leeway in the NSG. New Delhi has never been comfortable with Beijing's proximity with Islamabad.
Pakistan in turn is looking to leapfrog on a US promise to open civilian nuclear interactions with India, despite the allegations of proliferation in the past. Pakistan has formally approached the NSG seeking a deal similar to the one between the US and India to produce nuclear power, saying that it needed more atomic power plants to meet future energy requirements.
Given that Pakistan continues to be a crucial ally in Washington's "war on terror", Islamabad's concerns cannot be completely ignored. The US has been trying to mollify Pakistan through military sops. In the past, President George W Bush has spoken to President General Pervez Musharraf and assured him that the India-US nuclear pact was not directed against Pakistan and would not in any way tilt the "balance of power" in South Asia. Some observers say that ultimately US will end up supplying nuclear reactors to Pakistan as well.
However, analysts agree that the nuclear deal will come through given the lucrative market that India offers, though nobody hazards a time frame. India will hope that the hurdles will be overcome at the US Congress before May when the NSG is likely to look to change the rules.
Several powerful nations do not want to lose out on the nuclear contracts that are likely to follow. Russia sees India as a major market and has been keen on expanding nuclear links with India. French President Jacques Chirac has been the first international leader to speak of the need to accommodate India into the global nuclear order. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has endorsed the US decision, while Canada's move to renew civil nuclear energy cooperation following India's vote against Iran at the IAEA has been a big bonus.
India has been closely watching China, which has recently become a member of the NSG. By launching such a strong criticism, India's aspirations have turned that much more difficult.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.