Pallavi Aiyar

Manmohan failed to seek assurance from Hu

Prithviraj Chavan may visit China on

lobbying mission

Beijing: China on Thursday remained ambiguous on whether or not it would back the India-U.S. civilian nuclear energy deal. Responding to a question from The Hindu on Beijing’s intended stance, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao said, “China is currently studying the draft safeguards agreement and the relevant study work is still ongoing.”

China is a member of both the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Despite India repeatedly seeking Beijing’s assurance of support for the deal, Chinese authorities have remained studiously ambivalent. Official statements have usually reiterated the sentiment that any deal should “maintain and strengthen the effectiveness of the current international nuclear non-proliferation regime,” just stopping short of demanding that India sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Official media in China have been less circumspect, with the main Chinese Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily, accusing the deal of “double standards,” and calling it damaging to “the existing non-proliferation system.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to secure any formal assurance of support for the deal from Chinese President Hu Jintao when they recently met on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Japan. However, Indian officials said after the meeting that they were hopeful of China’s backing. Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said he did not anticipate “a difficulty” from the Chinese at the NSG.

In January, India and China signed a joint document, during Dr. Singh’s visit to Beijing, stating the two countries intended promoting bilateral cooperation in civil nuclear energy.

However, China’s “all weather” ally Pakistan has been unhappy with these developments. Islamabad has in fact been actively seeking Beijing’s assistance for a nuclear deal along the lines of the India-U.S. pact. The matter has reportedly been broached repeatedly during high-level contacts between the two countries.

However, no formal deal has been announced although Beijing has reassured Pakistan of its continuing support on all strategic matters, including energy cooperation. It has already provided Islamabad assistance in installing two nuclear power plants at Chashma. Pakistan has reportedly asked for assistance with the building of a number of such plants.

Some analysts believe that when India goes to the 45-member NSG, China may attempt to force through an exception for Pakistan as well, as a precondition for its acquiescing in the 123 Agreement. But most experts feel that when push comes to shove China will not risk international censure by entering into a nuclear deal with a known proliferator like Pakistan.

Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Prithviraj Chavan is expected to soon travel to Beijing to lobby support at the NSG.