Civil Nuclear Deal: the Pros and Cons
While the U.S. continues to dither over signing a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan, China has lent its support to the use of nuclear technology for energy generation in the country.
When a civil nuclear deal was signed between the U.S. and India, all eyes automatically drifted towards the possibility of a similar pact between the global superpower and Pakistan. The expectation was only natural, considering the traditional rivalry between India and Pakistan on most political issues, as well as the strategic significance of the two nations in the South Asian region. However, such anticipation does not come without doubts and question marks as to whether such a deal will ever see the light of day.
The civil nuclear deal with India was signed based on New Delhi’s rationale to increase the nuclear component in the country’s overall energy generation mix. Proponents of a similar agreement between Pakistan and the U.S. cite the same reason for encouraging a commercial
nuclear deal with Pakistan, especially considering the country’s struggle with managing its energy needs. Yet, Pakistan’s global reputation in the nuclear arena has raised eyebrows in political discourse.
To begin with, the advantages to Pakistan – besides the commercial aspect of greater use of nuclear technology for energy generation – are strategic and political. By signing a civil-nuclear deal with the U.S. similar to the Indian deal, the country can establish itself as an equally important member on the global political stage. It will also be helpful in repairing Pakistan’s tarnished reputation as far as nuclear security is concerned if the U.S. itself lends its support to Pakistan for using nuclear technology for commercial purposes. In a way, it will also point towards the fact that the U.S. trusts Pakistan with the use of nuclear technology. It will also help build Pakistan’s standing as a responsible nuclear-armed state, legitimizing its entire nuclear program.
Whether the U.S. does trust Pakistan’s use of nuclear technology for energy generation continues to be a major bottleneck in allowing for an affirmative action towards a civil nuclear deal with the U.S. Pakistan’s history of nuclear proliferation, with Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan admitting to selling nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran in 2004, is not of much help. In addition, in the wake of the existing security threats in the country, the safety of nuclear resources is a legitimate concern with Washington. There are speculations of terrorist groups in Pakistan interested in acquiring nuclear materials illicitly, hence posing a serious hindrance to the signing of any similar deal with the U.S. At the same time, India’s hostile relations with Pakistan also allow the former to raise concerns about its own security if a Pak-U.S. nuclear deal ever materializes.
In Pakistan’s defense, a recent study by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Index is worth mentioning in which Pakistan has been declared the most improved state in safeguarding its nuclear weapons. It has been ranked better than India in terms of nuclear material security and stands at 22 out of 25 countries, versus India’s 23rd rank. At the same time, many experts also believe that terrorist groups, such as the Taliban, do not have the capability to overtake Pakistan’s nuclear resources, which are quite well safeguarded. In spite of this, the general perception about the nation as not being trustworthy enough when it comes to nuclear warfare, combined with the openly known high levels of corruption amongst public officials, put the country at a severe disadvantage.
These issues aside, the commercial motive for greater use of nuclear technology for energy generation doesn’t have much backing either. Currently, Pakistan’s nuclear program contributes a meager 3.8 percent to the energy mix, with other sources of energy largely dominating power generation in the country. Given the dominance of these resources, it is hard to conceive that the contribution of nuclear power to the energy mix would receive any substantial boost, even following a possible commercial nuclear agreement between Pakistan and the U.S. But then again, India’s nuclear power contribution to the total energy generation is also in single digits, rendering this a weak argument against proposing a Pak-U.S. civil nuclear deal.
This leaves mainly strategic and political motives standing in the way of such a deal. Signing a civil nuclear deal with India holds more significance for the U.S. than what can be conceived by an ordinary mind. In the past, the U.S. has used India to counterweight China’s growing economic and political influence on numerous occasions. India is considered an equal force to be reckoned with as an emerging economy in the Asian region, other than China. The U.S.’ support for India and its assistance to the latter in the commercial use of resources is seen by many as a strategy to overshadow China’s rising prominence on the global stage.
In the wake of doubts and qualms regarding the possibility of a nuclear deal with the U.S., China’s commitment to cooperate in commercial nuclear use in Pakistan adds an interesting twist to the picture. While the U.S. and India may raise security concerns about a Pak-China commercial nuclear deal, the fact that China has endorsed the commercial use of nuclear resources in Pakistan goes to show that the latter controls its nuclear resources strictly with proper safeguarding measures.
Using nuclear technology for commercial purposes is the right of a nation, provided the safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency are being followed. It is encouraging that China is supporting Pakistan with a more widespread use of nuclear technology for energy generation. While security concerns and strategic motives should be considered, the commercial advantages of an additional source of energy cannot be downplayed. More important than debating the possibility of such a deal, nations such as the U.S. and China should first work on helping a country like Pakistan strengthen its safeguard methods and technology for nuclear resources. This may become a prerequisite for signing any possible civil nuclear deal, following which there should be minimum qualms about helping Pakistan out with a more productive use of nuclear technology and resources. The writer is a postgraduate economics and finance student at the School of Oriental and African Studies.