China warms to Indo-US nuclear deal

Posted in India | 01-Apr-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he had no objection to India cooperating with other countries to develop nuclear power, provided nuclear non-proliferation protocols were followed.

NEW DELHI: In a significant turnaround China has for the first time backed the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted by a newspaper in Australia as saying: ``India is a friendly neighbor of China and we do not object to its developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and co-operating with other countries in nuclear power generation.’’

``At the same time, we take the position that relevant parties should honor their obligations they have undertaken as parties to the non-proliferation treaty,’’ Jiabao said in an interview ahead of his visit to the country.

So far, Beijing has been sufficiently ambiguous in its reaction to the New Delhi nuclear deal. The language that has been used has been negative and forewarning of deep apprehensions. Wen’s interview is the first in which a top Chinese leader has spoken positively about the deal. India, is a non-signatory of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which it feels is biased in favor of the top nuclear five United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China.

In the past Beijing has spoken aloud about its misgivings. Following the New Delhi pact, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry said that the current international safeguards on nuclear weapons were the hard-won product of many countries' efforts and should not be weakened by exceptions. ``China hopes that concerned countries developing cooperation in peaceful nuclear uses will pay attention to these efforts. The cooperation should conform with the rules of international non-proliferation mechanisms,’’ he said.

Earlier this month, vice-foreign Minister, Dai Bingguo in India for the seventh round of boundary talks stayed away from making any comment. ``We have taken note of it, but we have primarily come here for border talks and that is our agenda,’’ he said, on being asked by reporters.

The state run Chinese media has been openly critical of the deal. ``There are concerns that the move will set a bad example for other countries as India has refused to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998,’’ the official Xinhua news agency noted.

After a studied silence, following the Indo-US nuclear pact last year in July, Renmin Ribao, China’s leading political daily, had 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 makes a ‘‘nuclear exception’’ for India, other powers could do the same with their friends and weaken the global non-proliferation regime.

Beijing’s considerable dilution to the Indo-US nuclear deal that was ratified earlier this month comes in the wake of Russia and China calling for setting up an institutional framework for trilateral cooperation with India.

The call was made in a joint declaration adopted by President Vladimir Putin and Chairman Hu Jintao during their summit meeting in Beijing on March 21-22 two weeks after US embraced India as its crucial strategic partner in the region. A trilateral meeting of businessmen from India, Russia and China has been scheduled in Delhi for end of March, and the Foreign Ministers of the three countries are to meet in India later this year.

Last year, India joined as observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Earlier this month Russia decided to supply nuclear fuel strapped nuclear reactors at Tarapur, following the Indo-US pact. Low enriched Uranium has since been delivered.

The US, meanwhile, is pushing for India to be accepted as a nuclear exception given its record as a responsible nation. In what is being seen as the biggest Indian push on Capitol Hill, this week India’s foreign secretary Shyam Saran has been dispatched to launch a charm offensive on US Congressmen, who have begun deliberations on the pact. Saran is seeking meetings with the big names of the Senate and House committees, including Senators Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden, and Representatives Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos.

New Delhi has been apprehensive about China’s reaction to the nuclear deal.

Even as Washington seems to have finally de-hyphenated its approach towards India and Pakistan, New Delhi does not want Sino-Indian relationship to be pegged to India and USA. An important reason for Washington to closely engage India has been the strategic need to balance the growing economic and military might of Beijing, a notion that New Delhi has been keen to dispel. New Delhi has also been trying to keep Beijing away from the tendency to seek Islamabad each time it feels insecure about India.

Analysts have also been talking about Beijing’s fears about firming up of deeper security relations between India and USA. Beijing has been rapidly strengthening its entry to the Indian Ocean region and component sea-lanes of trade, has been wary of the near conclusion of the Indo-US Maritime Security Framework announced during the Bush visit. Beijing will also be not happy with the US defense department statement during the Bush visit that Washington has agreed to sell India more sophisticated fighter aircrafts and other high-tech arms.

However, it seems that the momentum of good relations between India and China has prevailed. Sino-Indian relations are currently at their best phase with talks underway on the boundary issue and business flourishing. India’s President A P J Abdul Kalam’s recently remarked that the "wound" of the 1962 conflict with China had "healed" and India’s "national aim" was the coming together of the two Asian powers. Commerce minister Kamal Nath said recently said that Sino-India bilateral trade pegged at over $ 15 billion this fiscal could overtake Indo-US trade in the near future. India and China concluded the seventh round of border talks this month on ``a constructive and friendly’’ note.

Indeed, there will be plenty of opportunity for New Delhi to build on Jiabao’s latest utterances. Circa

2006 has been declared the India-China friendship year with more than 40 events and meetings to celebrate the occasion. Following up on the Jiabao’s visit to India last year, both countries are firming up another round of high-level visits with Jintao to arrive soon, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh likely to visit Beijing later in the year. Earlier this month, Manmohan met Bingguo for over 30 minutes and is said to have impressed New Delhi’s nuclear imperatives, apart from an early resolution of the boundary question.

In hindsight, Jiabao had perhaps given a hint of a re-think in Beijing’s mindset regarding the pact.

Earlier this month Jiabao said Beijing valued relations with India, saying strong bilateral ties would ``usher in a true Asian century.’’ This year marks the year of friendship between China and India, Wen said, adding, ``cultural exchanges will be high on the agenda.’’

``Now China-India relations have entered a new historical stage,’’ he said, hoping that the ``fraternal friendship will become vibrant and strong’’ and remain in the hearts of the two Asian states. Wen was speaking at a press conference, shortly after the end of the national legislature's annual session.

India can now hope for Beijing’s support at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group that will soon take up India’s case as the nuclear exception.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist)