Why the sudden interest?
Arch-rivals India and Pakistan both are nuclear powers. The US had lifted ban on India under the India-US civilian nuclear agreement, allowing it to engage not only with its nuclear weapons programme but also with civilian nuclear agreement. The agreement signed in 2008 was taken by Pakistan as keeping Pakistan at bay, keeping it out of the circle of the elite nuclear club.
Reported in a daily newspaper, Washington’s exploring options to offer a similar deal to Islamabad, eight years after the deal being offered to New Delhi. The timing and ground realities of the deal then and the ‘exploration mission’ by US now prompt a closer scrutiny.
Interestingly, since the deal in 2008 New Delhi has made no purchases from the US. As a matter of fact, not a single US atomic power reactor was purchased. The objective of this step was to put an end to India’s alienation being a population wise a huge Asian country. “The real objective of the initiative was to end decades of alienation between the world’s largest democracies and build a genuine strategic partnership. Delhi and Washington knew that there could be no real partnership without resolving differences on non-proliferation that had so severely poisoned the bilateral relations from the early 1970s.”(Indian Express, July 20, 2015)
“The essence of the deal was simple: the United States would give up trying to roll back India’s nuclear weapons programme and change its domestic law and tweak international rules to facilitate civil nuclear cooperation with New Delhi. India, on its part, would separate its civilian and military nuclear programmes, put the former under international safeguards, and support the global non-proliferation regime.” (Indian Express, July 20, 2015)
If one casts an eye on geopolitical scenario of 2008, we see increasing alarm in India owing to conflict of interest with a rising China. China’s claims and actual control on Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim had created panic in India. Robert Black noted that without this China factor at the fore “the Bush Administration would not have negotiated the civil nuclear agreement and the Congress would not have approved it.” (The Diplomat, June 22, 2015)
Whereas India offered a growing market for nuclear purchase, Pakistan, owing to war on terror on its soil resulting (among other reasons) in a poor economy, did not offer the same advantage to the US. Ignored by USA, Pakistan signed a nuclear agreement with her old ally China leading to provision of at least two nuclear reactors for Pakistan. China played smart with India as well. In 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India, both countries agreed to initiate talks on cooperation on civil nuclear energy. India traditionally has been an ally of Russia as US has been of China and was in no rush to throw overboard her national interests in favour of the olive branch held out by US.
Why should US explore opportunities to offer a similar deal in 2015 to Pakistan? The war on terror continues. The economy continues being poor. Corruption remains high. “The issue is being discussed quietly in the run-up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington on Oct 22,” said leading columnist David Ignatius in an article he wrote for theWashington Post. The Post report claimed that the proposed deal could place new limits and controls on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in return for “a version of the civil nuclear deal”.” (Local newspaper, October 8, 2015)
What has changed is the changing dynamics of Pakistan’s closeness with US or to rephrase: Pakistan’s moving closer with Russia and China in light of CPEC. For starters, Russia lifted an arms embargo it had placed on Pakistan. Later, by the end of 2014, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with Pakistan, arch-rival with Russia’s traditional ally India. “There have been reports that Pakistan may purchase Mi-35 combat helicopters apart from directly importing the Klimov RD-93 engines from Russia rather than via China for its JF-17 multi-role fighters. This could also mean a significant role for Russian equipment and spares in future development of the fighter. In addition, Russian state-owned firm Rostekh Corporation is planning to build a 680-mile gas pipeline in Pakistan in 2017 at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion.”(The Diplomat, August 18, 2015) The paper continues to state, “The China-Pakistan link is well known and is the most formidable leg of the Russia-China-Pakistan triangle. With India having diversified its military suppliers to include countries like the US and Israel, Russia no longer sees any impediment to establishing a strategic relationship with Pakistan.”
According to a local newspaper, “The construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is now gaining momentum in Pakistan. During Xi’s visit, China and Pakistan agreed to form a “1+4″ cooperation structure with the CPEC at the centre and the Gwadar Port, transport infrastructure, energy and industrial cooperation being the four key areas to achieve a win-win result and common development. On April 20, ground-breaking of five power projects was jointly done by the Chinese President and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif via video link. Among the projects, Zonergy 900 MW solar power plant is likely going to be the first one to be put into Pakistan’s national grid. The 1.5 billion dollar project, the largest solar power plant in the world located in Bahawalpur is being developed in three phases and is expected to be completed by the end of 2016. According to Zonergy Company Limited, the first 50 MW of the project is near completion and is going to be energised soon. Before the end of this year, 300 MW will be added to Pakistan’s national grid. In addition to the Zonergy project, a number of new energy projects, being constructed by Chinese companies, are also proceeding steadily.”(Published August 19, 2015)
That’s not all. Does anyone remember the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation? The SCO has decided for both India and Pakistan to join as full members by 2016. The currently full members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The SCO is seen as a strong organisation, not falling within the ambit of US influence. “This expansion promotes the democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order proposed by China. The addition of India and Pakistan to SCO will also affect China mainly in terms of reaching a consensus and possible vetoing. When China-India and China-Pakistan border issues intensify, they might affect SCO cooperation. Thus SCO expansion must be observed from a sober, rational perspective.” (PublishedCCTV.com English, June 17, 2015)
Combine the near joining of Pakistan as full member at SCO and the forming of a nexus with Russia and China, it is little wonder that US is ‘exploring opportunity’ to offer a nuclear deal to Pakistan at this juncture.
Pakistan must weigh the advantages of such a box of goodies carefully vis a vis its disadvantages. It requires deliberate planning and shrewd foreign politicking. Pakistan is poised at a crossroads. If it plays its cards cleverly, combining short term and long term benefits, it can catapult itself to a position of power. The question is: Will it?