Pakistan and China are currently in talks over a potential deal that could see China sell Pakistan three large nuclear plants for around $13 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. The new talks come on the heels of China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation on a complex containing two nuclear plants in Karachi – a $9 billion project – which was ceremonially inducted by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in late 2013.
If an agreement is reached and Pakistan is able to acquire the funds to build the reactors, Pakistan’s electricity supply problems could be alleviated. Nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan also highlights a much broader strategic partnership with greater economic, political, and military elements.
According to Ansar Parvez, chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, Pakistan aims to output 8,800 megawatts of nuclear energy by 2030. Currently, 750 megawatts of Pakistan’s 12,000-14,000 megawatts of energy output are generated by nuclear plants.
The United States, an important ally for Pakistan, expressed concern at the deal according to the WSJ report, on the grounds that international rules prohibit nuclear commerce with countries such as Pakistan that are not signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
The $9 billion deal for the Karachi complex, which absolutely dwarfs other Chinese involvement in Pakistan’s domestic nuclear energy market, marked a new sort of advance in the “all-weather” partnership between China and Pakistan. Sino-Pakistani civil nuclear cooperation is emerging as a “growing counterpoint to [the] nuclear axis between the United States and India in recent years that Pakistani officials have seen as an irritant and Chinese officials have seen as a geopolitical challenge,” the New York Times noted.
Geopolitics aside, the prime motivator of the deal – at least on the Pakistani side – is a critical deficit in energy infrastructure and capacity. Prior to his election in May 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif emphasized that his government would tackle Pakistan’s chronic energy shortages. Nuclear energy remains somewhat of a long-term vision for Pakistan – coal, gas, and hydroelectric projects are also underway.
Pakistan’s energy situation is certainly complicated by geopolitics. In December 2013, Iran canceled a scheduled loan to Pakistan for a gas pipeline between the two countries that would have served as a short-term saving grace for Pakistan’s energy needs. The United States has urged Pakistan to resist energy overtures of this sort and instead focus on a land-delivered oil from Turkmenistan.
According to the Wall Street Journal, burgeoning nuclear commerce between China and Pakistan could develop into an issue on the U.S.-China diplomatic agenda. One U.S. official notes that the project causes “concerns because of the commitments within the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It is also a U.S.-China issue.” The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is an international body that regulates the export of nuclear and dual-use technology from nations with nuclear know-how and infrastructure to those without under the legal regime of the NPT. Currently, China maintains that its nuclear commerce with Pakistan began prior to it joining the NSG and is therefore exempt from scrutiny.