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    South Asia
     Nov 23, 2006
A nuclear dimension to Indo-China relations
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - Chinese President Hu Jintao's current visit to India has opened a small window for possible nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As the US Congress comes close to ratifying a historic nuclear pact with India, Beijing seems to be looking to turn aside geostrategic and security concerns (which it has been underlining so far) in the interest of business opportunities that building new nuclear reactors could open.

Indeed, business has taken precedence over politics, especially

when the stakes involved can be more than US$100 billion, the estimated civilian nuclear energy reactors market in India.

Summing up Beijing's new thinking, Hu declared that "India's growth is an opportunity, not threat".

This is the first time that a joint statement at the highest level has talked about cooperation in nuclear energy between India and China. The two countries have had limited nuclear relations in the past, including Chinese supplying low-enriched uranium to India's Tarapur atomic reactor in 1995 and heavy water in the 1980s.

There is still a long way to go. Beijing's position will become more apparent when it will be required to elucidate its stand at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), where discussions regarding international acceptance of India's nuclear status should proceed after US congressional ratification of the nuclear pact.

Indian officials, however, say China is now unlikely to oppose the deal at the NSG and is more likely to concentrate on winning contracts and nuclear tenders. The competition can be stiff, with top companies from countries such as Russia, France, apart from the US already in the race. A US business delegation comprising representatives of top nuclear firms will visit India this month.

But India will be closely watching China's dealings with Pakistan and whether it does go ahead with a similar nuclear pact as the Indo-US deal, as has been suggested. Hu will head to Pakistan after the conclusion of his India trip.

One reason New Delhi has been averse to Chinese firms' close involvement in key strategic areas such as telecoms and ports is China's support to Pakistan and other countries such as Bangladesh in the same areas, including involvement in the Gwadar port in Balochistan. Gwadar opens the possibility of Chinese naval presence very close to Indian shores.

It will not be palatable to Indian security mandarins that the same set of engineers should be setting up nuclear reactors in both the countries. China has been involved in the construction of at least two nuclear reactors in Pakistan. The US has refused to deal with Pakistan on nuclear energy because of its dubious proliferation record.

In the past, reacting to the Indo-US civilian nuclear energy deal, China has asked India to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty first. India has refused to sign the NPT as it considers it to be biased in favor of countries that already possess nuclear weapons. Beijing has been critical of the US for violating international norms by signing the nuclear pact with India and was unhappy about Indian nuclear-weapon tests in 1998.

Not too long back, Beijing said that given India's strong military strength, it was Pakistan more than India that needed nuclear weapons to defend itself.

Because of intense pressure from Beijing, including the possible blacklisting of Indian information-technology firms keen to expand in China, New Delhi has refrained from a comprehensive law against foreign investments by Chinese firms. But the suspicions harking back to a war fought in the early1960s continue to be there, though the Chinese companies have still won several contracts in India, in several infrastructure, oil and gas projects, because of the sheer cost advantage and quality of delivery.

Language, culture and different political systems (read democratic rights), however, continue to be issues with the very efficient Chinese personnel, a contrast to the slightly more laid-back and affable approach of Indians.

Still, even talking about opening the doors for future nuclear cooperation, in the context of raging nuclear-weapons-related controversies in North Korea, Iran and Pakistan, is a significant move forward.

The joint statement issued after the deliberations involving Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Hu said: "There is the need for an international energy order, and for global energy systems to take into account the needs of both countries based on a stable, predictable, secure and clean energy future. In this context, the international civilian nuclear cooperation should be advanced through innovative and forward-looking approaches while safeguarding the effectiveness of international non-proliferation principles."

While enhanced Indo-US relations are being seen as Washington's attempt to balance the might of China in the region, it is clear now that Beijing does not want the US to walk away with business as well. The more difficult task in this context, however, will be relations with Islamabad, with which Beijing has enjoyed long close military ties.

Indeed, Hu's day-long meetings with top Indian dignitaries were a clinical exercise. There were no asides, warm handshakes, impromptu speeches, smiles and laughter. Hu and Manmohan during the joint press declaration looked more like the chief executive officers of two large corporates announcing the results of a successful partnership so far, in the strict interest of business parameters and quarterly results. There was nothing cultural, unlike, say, a conference with former US president Bill Clinton or even George W Bush.

The declaration issued after talks between Manmohan and Hu says: "Both sides believe that comprehensive economic and commercial engagement between India and China is a core component of their strategic and cooperative partnership." Setting a target of raising bilateral trade flows to US$40 billion by 2010 (double the current level), it emphasizes that the two countries will make joint efforts "to diversify their trade basket, remove existing impediments, and utilize the present and potential complementarities to sustain and strengthen bilateral commercial and economic cooperation".

A Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement has been signed, while a joint task force will expedite its study of the feasibility and benefits of India-China regional trading arrangement and submit the report by next October.

The two countries, which have been competing globally to acquire oil and gas fields, have agreed to implement closely the provisions of the memorandum on cooperation in oil and gas signed last January. Next year has also been designated the China-India Friendship Year for Tourism. The two special representatives leading the discussion on the boundary question have been asked to accelerate efforts to arrive at a settlement.

The 13 agreements the two countries made during Hu's visit cover diverse areas, including protection of bilateral investment, trading of iron ore and export of rice, agriculture, education, forestry and the conservation of cultural heritage.

India and China have decided to hold regular summit-level exchanges in each other's country and on multilateral forums, open new consulates in Kolkata and Guangzhou, and set up an "expert-level mechanism" to discuss issues relating to trans-border rivers.

Hu said China and India are major developing countries, and that their relationship is of global significance in bilateral, regional and international dimensions. He said the two share "broad and sustained interests".

Manmohan said, "At the fulcrum of our efforts is our collective political will to enrich and reinforce our strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity, and to resolve our outstanding issues in a focused, sincere and problem-solving manner."

It is true, however, that cooperation in nuclear energy has opened a new dimension.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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