A meeting this week of a little-known international nuclear export-control organization could have a significant impact on the future of nuclear proliferation, with long-term consequences—for good or ill—for global peace and security.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is now holding its annual plenary session in the Netherlands. Established in 1975, the NSG is composed of 46 states—including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—that have the capacity to export nuclear technology and material, and who have agreed to voluntary restrictions on nuclear commerce to ensure benign exports don’t contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation.
One issue surely on the diplomats’ minds is the recent announcement by China, an NSG member, that it will build two nuclear reactors in Pakistan to address Pakistan’s persistent energy shortages. Such a sale is in direct contravention of Beijing’s commitments under the NSG, which requires that any state receiving nuclear assistance consent to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of all of its current and future nuclear activities. While both Pakistan and China insist the new reactors will be subject to IAEA safeguards, Pakistan has refused any oversight of its nuclear weapons programme, which was developed in secret and met with widespread condemnation when it became public in the late-1990s.
This agreement could deal a serious blow to the web of multilateral agreements and international covenants nuclear power states have developed over decades to restrict the proliferation of the world’s deadliest technologies. The Sino-Pakistan deal, by flagrantly disregarding a widely-accepted agreement on nuclear exports, would set a dangerous precedent. Notably, China—faced with its own energy problems and determined to develop an indigenous nuclear industry—is reportedly considering exporting nuclear reactor technology to a host of countries, including Vietnam, South Africa, and Algeria. If such deals are concluded outside of the NSG framework and without IAEA safeguards, nuclear fuel will likely be less secure and the threat that peaceful nuclear energy programs will be weaponized stealthily would increase. More fundamentally, other nuclear exporters would get the message that it’s acceptable to ignore the NSG and other voluntary WMD control regimes, undermining the international architecture that has kept nuclear proliferation largely in check for half a century.
Beijing could have pursued a formal waiver from the NSG for the deal, much as the United States did when it sold nuclear reactor technology to India in 2008. Under pressure from Washington, the NSG exempted India from the requirement for comprehensive IAEA inspections so the controversial US-Indian civil nuclear cooperation initiative could go through—a move that angered China through its seeming hypocrisy, favouring one security relationship over others. Beijing decided against pursuing a formal waiver for its Pakistan deal, and press reports indicate the United States has grudgingly accepted China’s illicit sale, choosing not to make a fuss over an agreement Washington is in no place to prevent.
What’s more, India is now pursuing membership in the NSG, and China has refused to support the bid, evidently concerned over the NSG’s inequity. The NSG could vote to expel China for violating its rules, but such a move would leave Beijing to conduct its expanded nuclear commerce without any international oversight.
However, even if China doesn’t pursue a formal waiver, there is a third way between passively accepting Beijing’s violations or ejecting it from the NSG. Before its conference concludes, the NSG should take the unusual step of issuing a statement approving of the Sino-Pakistan deal, echoing the assurances Islamabad and Beijing have given publicly that the facilities themselves will be under IAEA safeguards. Essentially, the NSG should issue what amounts to a waiver even if Beijing doesn’t ask for one.
By taking this unilateral measure, the group would first acknowledge reality: the Sino-Pakistan deal is likely to happen, with or without international sanction. Second, by insisting on the IAEA restrictions on the reactors themselves, the NSG would promote the larger goal of non-proliferation, which could be furthered in this instance by using the IAEA to help secure Pakistan’s nuclear fuel. Third, by making such a statement, the NSG would appear even-handed, directly addressing Chinese concerns over an Indo-American double standard in nuclear commerce. In short, such an exemption would show that the international non-proliferation regime isn’t a stooge of the United States, but a fair covenant dedicated to protecting the safety—and sovereign rights—of its members equally. Fourth, and most important, the statement would keep China inside the NSG while preserving the credibility of the agreement. Once Beijing sees that NSG exceptions will be granted objectively, it will be more likely to submit future deals to it formally for review.
Finally, China should be encouraged through back channels to reciprocate this unilateral measure by issuing its own statement welcoming the NSG’s declaration and reaffirming the IAEA’s role overseeing and securing the reactors and its fuel. While both the NSG’s statement and the Chinese response would only constitute political declarations without the force of a formal agreement, they would accomplish nearly the same thing: demonstrating that international non-proliferation norms are applied equitably, encouraging China’s continued participation therein, and avoiding a rupture that would threaten the stability of the global non-proliferation regime.
This may be an imperfect solution, but given the rising threat of nuclear proliferation, it may be good enough.
Matthew F. Ferraro is a JD candidate at Stanford Law School.