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Beijing Hardens Its Stand on the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement

Amidst latest media reports on China-Pakistan negotiations over a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, similar to that between the US and India, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is coming out with firm signals pointing to its disapproval of the Washington-New Delhi deal. A series of articles in the official Chinese and English language media, appearing since the consensus reached by the two sides on the implementation of their civil nuclear cooperation agreement (Washington, July 27, 2007), have shown no hesitation in openly questioning the motives of the US and India behind their deal. This approach stands in contrast to Beijing’s willingness, noticed at official levels till recently, to be open minded on the issue.

2. The themes prominently taken up in these articles can be summed up as follows:

  1. The US ‘double standards’: By reaching the agreement with India,Washington has violated the international non-proliferation norms and exposed its double standards as against the different treatment accorded to the cases of Iran and North Korea. (“Study Times”, the Chinese language organ of the Central Party School, August 13, 2007, “People’s Daily”, English, August 14, 2007).

As a result of US double standards, the trustworthiness of the nuclear policy of the Bush regime has been eroded and the concerned countries having similar agreements with the US already, now doubt whether or not Washington is reliable. (“Xinhua”, Chinese, July 30, 2007).

  1. Draw India into US global strategy: The agreement reflects Washington’s aims to create favourable geo-strategic conditions in the South Asia region. It has come to regard India as a key factor for Asian Security and by making that country as its new partner in Asia under its strategic orbit, the US is keen to maintain the power balance in Asia. The US readiness to help India in the energy field marks a desire to make the latter a tool in implementing its global strategy. (“Study Times”, August 13, 2007, “Xinhua” August 13, 2007).

  2. The US economic and counter-terrorism interests: The US wants to enhance its strategic interests in the Asian subcontinent where India is a power, controlling the Indian Ocean; protection through India of the interests of the US and its allies in terms of oil transport security through the Indian Ocean, is important for Washington. Also, India and the US have common interests in fighting Islamic extremism and terrorism in the region. (“Kuang Ming Ribao”, Chinese, August 8, 2007).

Through the agreement, the US wants to strengthen its control over South Asia region, particularly in the interests of its counter-terrorism goals, at a time when the level of terrorism has gone up in South Asia. Afghanistan has become a terrorist base, Sri Lanka’s LTTE has been listed by the US as a foreign terrorist organisation and in the very recent period, Pakistan has been severely affected by terrorism. (“Study Times”, August 13, 2007).

Washington stands to benefit economically through the agreement with India, as the latter aims to expand its nuclear industry with heavy investment in next 30 years. The US and Japanese companies (GE and Hitachi) are poised to enter India in joint ventures to build nuclear power reactors. The US-India nuclear cooperation may lead to Washington’s pressure on New Delhi, to lift restrictions on the FDI flow to India and bring down import tariffs. (“Study Times”, August 13, 2007, “Kuang Ming Ribao”, August 8, 2007).

  1. The US global democracy initiative: Washington’s goal is to bring India, “the world’s largest democracy”, and a power, which is constantly increasing its strength, under the US-led world order; this will pave the way to removal of an unstable factor in the US strategy. (“Study Times”, August 13, 2007). The US is aware that any failure on this account, could ultimately affect the 21st Century strategic partnership between the two sides and may not like the possibility of India, consequent to its rise as an advanced nuclear power, turning its attention towards Russia. (“Guang Ming Ribao”, August 8, 2007).

  2. US defence-related motives: The US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement will indirectly encourage the building up of bilateral defence relations, especially in the context of the 10-year defence agreement of 2005.. Weapons sales from the US to India (supply of F-16 and F-18 aircraft) and joint space flights, are to materialise. The planned US-India joint military exercises will set a new stage for US-India military relations. (“Study Times”, August 13, 2007)

  3. India’s big power ambition: Motivating factors are different for India. The agreement with the US, will be used by India to seize the opportunity and make it serve its goal of becoming a “great power”. (“Study Times”, August 13, 2007, “Xinhua”, August 13 2007 and “People’s Daily”- English, August 14, 2007).

The agreement epitomising a nuclear alliance between US and India, is not likely to change basically New Delhi’s foreign policy, but could increase some unstable factors in the region; Pakistan and Iran have already criticised the agreement and some other countries with aspirations to develop nuclear technology, are desiring more exceptions like what the US did in India’s case. As such, the people are unable to judge whether or not the US-India accord is an obstacle to promoting international peace or marks a starting point for the beginning of a new round of nuclear arms race. (“People’s Daily”, August 18, 2007).

  1. Importance to India of military cooperation with the US: India is excessively reliant on Russian arms and equipment; it wants to reduce such dependence; Russia, on its part, is imposing certain restrictions on India while supplying arms. To diversify the sources of military supplies, India needs arms help from the US and its allies. Defence relations with US have thus become important for India. Through its military assistance to India and the resultant reduced dependence of the latter on Russia for arms, Washington wants to exert pressure in respect of Russia’s traditional strategic space. (“Study Times”, August 13, 2007).

  2. Prospects for US-India Civil Nuclear cooperation Agreement: The agreement’s prospects are misty. The voices in India against it have grown. Both Left and right political elements in India are opposing the agreement and dissatisfaction over the Hyde Act has spread within the country. An implication of the agreement would be that the US is likely to maintain its control over India’s nuclear programme. (“People’s Daily”, August 18, 2007). Moreover New Delhi has still to cross three stages prior to the implementation of the agreement – negotiations on IAEA safeguards, consideration by the NSG and approval by the US Congress. (Xinhua – July 25, 2007). The agreement has caused political turmoil in India leading to a situation where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might be forced to step down from office. (“Global Times”, August 17, 2007).

3. Undoubtedly, the critical approach of the Party and State-controlled media as above is a departure from the positions hitherto adopted at official levels in the PRC. Beijing’s agreement, at the time of President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in December 2006, to cooperate with India in the civilian nuclear field, was seen by many as symbolic of China’s acceptance of exception to India accorded in this field as per the Washington-New Delhi agreement of July 2005. As late as August 7,2007, a PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson expressed his country’s willingness to do some ‘creative thinking’, on the issues relating to the US-India agreement in the NSG, along with the international community. Former PRC Ambassador to India, Cheng Ruisheng, interpreted this as a signal that Beijing would not be dogmatic on the agreement.

4. The comments made in the media in China on the US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement, have interestingly been on the same lines of the criticisms being levelled against the deal by the Indian Leftists. Their references to US global strategy and intention to draw India into it, are a case in point. Also of interest is absence of any mention in the Chinese media comments about US efforts to “contain China”. Such references were seen in the past. Comments now are instead about US attempts for achieving balance of power in Asia, which may by implication mean targetting of China by Washington. In any case, what comes out clear is that despite the prevailing normalcy in the Sino-US relations, there seems to be no let up in the level of Beijing’s strategic suspicions over Washington’s long-term motives. Against this background, a distinct possibility would be that the normalcy which has now come to prevail in the Sino-Indian relations due to efforts of both the sides, may come under a cloud in the event of the agreement coming into effect ultimately. That will not be good for stability in Asia.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. He was formerly Director, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. The relevant Chinese language material was translated by the writer. Email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

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