China's official response to the March 2 US-India nuclear deal has been rather low-key, if not completely muted. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) commented that any nuclear cooperation should contribute to the strengthening of the international nuclear nonproliferation efforts and expressed the hope that non-signatory states could sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapon states.
However, the Chinese news media have evidenced little reticence on the issue, focusing not only on the significance of the nuclear deal, but also assessing the broader trends of closer strategic ties between Washington and New Delhi. In a way, the media comments and experts' analyses suggest Beijing is not completely indifferent to the increasingly close ties between the US and India.
At the summit in New Delhi early this month, US President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the surprising announcement that the US and India had reached an agreement on nuclear cooperation, after India agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs and pledged to open 14 of its 22 nuclear power reactors currently running to international inspection. While Beijing's official reactions were rather muted, to say the least, some Chinese commentators did take issue with Washington's double standards in its nonproliferation policy and the potentially far-reaching impact on global efforts to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
China's media described Bush's visit to India, his first in five years, as a major milestone in US-India relations. Indeed, since last July during Singh's visit to Washington the two countries have pursued a series of initiatives to expand bilateral cooperation.
Global Times, a popular Chinese international affairs newspaper affiliated with the official Chinese Communist Party flagship paper, the People's Daily, noted at the time the significance that the US attached to the Singh visit and the increasingly warm relationship between the two countries, in particular the Bush administration's reversal of long-standing US nonproliferation policy by seeking to remove obstacles to greater US-Indian cooperation in the civilian nuclear sector. This is despite the fact that New Delhi has yet to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
In a separate report at the time, the China Daily, the official paper targeted at overseas Chinese and foreign audiences, argued that the nuclear deal set a bad precedent. It cited concerns by many nuclear nonproliferation analysts that the US was applying double standards in its WMD nonproliferation policy.
This in effect further undermines global nonproliferation principles. Chinese analysts suggest that the US-India nuclear deal could make it more difficult to tackle the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues and incur strong objections from Tehran and Pyongyang as Washington demands that they give up their nuclear programs. Pakistan may also demand that it receive the same treatment as India did. They also point out that the US-India nuclear deal sets a bad example for countries with advanced nuclear technologies that have chosen to forgo the development of nuclear weapons.
Chinese media reports also comment on expanding US-India ties, in particular in the areas of defense and space cooperation, as well as economic relations. India's rapid economic growth over the past decade and its desire to be recognized as a major power has drawn increasing international attention. The US has over the last decade reoriented its South Asia policy to take account of these new developments and sought to develop closer ties with India.
According to Chinese analyses, the Bush administration seeks to consolidate the US-India relationship by focusing on three key areas. The first involves forming a strong politico-strategic partnership by emphasizing their shared values as the world's oldest and largest democracies, and their common interests in combating global terrorism, achieving energy security and maintaining regional stability. The second focuses on expanding bilateral trade to achieve a target of US$50 billion in three years.
But perhaps the most significant, apart from the nuclear deal, is growing defense and space cooperation. The Pentagon has signed a 10-year defense cooperation agreement with India in which the US would provide a broad range of defense equipment and military technologies, including fighter aircraft (F-16s and F-18s) and joint research and development. The US is also considering space cooperation with India.
The Chinese also note India's growing aspiration to great power status. With a growing economy, New Delhi is allocating more resources to defense. Its defense budget for next year has risen 7.2 percent over the previous year to reach almost US$20 billion.
India remains the only Asian country that has aircraft carriers. The Indian navy is now looking to extend its reach to the Strait of Malacca to both make its influence felt and secure its maritime economic interests.
While these developments would naturally cause serious concerns to China's policy makers, Beijing has so far remained rather cautious in either reacting to or making more explicit public comments. Indeed, given the magnitude of the Bush administration's decision, official Chinese reactions have been surprisingly muted.
In view of the close control over the media exercised by Beijing, the consistency of the viewpoint among all major Chinese press outlets in covering the story cannot be considered accidental. It could be that the unconcerned attitude of the press is a true reflection of official thinking, for two reasons. One is that Bush's proposal has yet to win domestic and multilateral approval. China is well aware of the opposition in both the US Congress and the US nonproliferation community.
The other reason is that Beijing is less worried that the warming US-India relationship will inevitably be aimed at China: New Delhi is famed for its pursuit of an independent foreign policy, and is unlikely to allow itself to be a junior partner in the US-led containment policy against China.
Indeed, while most Chinese media reports suggest that Washington is seeking closer ties with New Delhi to counter China's increasing influence in Asia, they also dismiss the prospects of India accepting a junior-partner role in the US' grand strategy of containing China. Many analysts point out that India will continue to maintain an independent foreign policy and that domestic politics in India, where there is a sizable anti-US political force, will prevent the strategic partnership from becoming an alliance relationship.
But perhaps Beijing's sound of silence draws on its confidence in its own improving relationship with India over the past few years. Bilateral ties have developed rapidly in the economic, political and military fields. Two-way trade reached a record US$18.7 billion last year. The two countries have launched security dialogues and are working to resolve territorial disputes. This year has been designated as the Year of Chinese-Indian Friendship.
And the two countries have also sought closer cooperation in the area of energy security.
There is a lot at stake for the two Asian powers, and neither would benefit from an adversarial relationship.
Yuan Jing-dong is director of research, East Asia Nonproliferation Program, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and associate professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
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