Sino-Pak Alliance: Naval and Nuclear Cooperation

The unrealistic expectations in India from Li Keqiang's visit to Delhi and Mumbai next week are likely to be tempered when weighed against the Chinese premier's agenda in Pakistan. Li flies from India to Pakistan and from there to Switzerland and Germany.  

Sections of India's foreign policy establishment have long cultivated the illusion that improved relations with China might result in a more balanced approach in Beijing towards Delhi and Islamabad.

News reports from Pakistan say Li is likely to sign an accord on further development of the Gwadar port on the Balochistan coast. Li's talks are also likely to focus on civilian nuclear cooperation, the reports say.

Official media reports from Beijing do not mention either agreement, but simply reaffirm China's commitment to deepen the strategic partnership with Pakistan. Naval and nuclear cooperation between the two countries has a long history and Delhi must expect them to advance in the coming years.

Together the two areas underline the enduring tension that China's alliance with Pakistan generates for Sino-Indian relations. This can't be papered over by the usual rhetoric in Delhi and Beijing about their shared global interests.

Pakistan has recently transferred the operational control over the Gwadar port, which was constructed with Beijing's assistance, from Singaporean firm to a Chinese one. While the Gwadar port can't serve as a naval base at this moment, Delhi's military planners must necessarily assume such an option exists for Beijing in the future.

That premise is realistic, since China's stakes in the Indian Ocean are growing rapidly. Meanwhile Chinese naval arms transfers to Pakistan have acquired a new intensity and are creating a basis for interoperability between the two navies.

More immediately, India is faced with a nuclear problem that it cannot really ignore. It is about Beijing's opposition to India's integration with the global nuclear order and China's determination to ensure Pakistan's nuclear parity with India.

History reminds us that without China's support, Pakistan could not have easily become a nuclear weapon power. Even as Delhi reconciled to that fact, it had to confront Chinese resistance to the historic U.S. initiative to end India's nuclear isolation during 2005-08.

Since then, Beijing, in violation of international rules, has agreed to supply civilian nuclear reactors to Pakistan. Islamabad is now pressing Beijing to convert the one time sale into a formal agreement for civil nuclear cooperation.

If this is not bad enough, Beijing has been opposing the U.S. effort to promote India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international forum that sets the rules for global nuclear commerce.

In his public remarks during his recent visit to China, the external affairs minister Salman Khurshid ducked the questions on Beijing's nuclear tilt against India. In his talks with Li on Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to make it clear that China's current nuclear policy towards India is hostile and unacceptable.       

(C. Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor of The Indian Express)

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