In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Beijing decided to review its plans for expanding nuclear power in China. It appears likely that China will shift its ambitious nuclear construction program away from older designs to modern technology provided by foreign vendors.
Although there are no indications that China is reconsidering its decision to build two additional nuclear power reactors in Pakistan—which are based on technology Beijing will probably abandon domestically—the accident in Japan provides Beijing with an opportunity to pause and contemplate conditioning its cooperation with Pakistan on improvements in nuclear safety and security. During such a pause, Beijing could consider the possibility of developing within the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) a criteria-based approach to nuclear cooperation with states lacking full-scope safeguards (FSS). This strategy would be invoked irrespective of other discussions about future NSG membership and criteria that might be considered in that context.
A criteria-based approach would provide a roadmap for states without FSS, including Pakistan, to qualify for civil nuclear cooperation, thus placing China’s current and future nuclear cooperation with Pakistan in an NSG process. The lynchpin in this approach is incentivizing China through the licensing of foreign reactor technology, so that China sees greater economic potential in achieving its longer-term ambition of becoming a nuclear exporter than in its shorter-term deals with Pakistan. Such an approach could help resolve persistent questions about the NSG’s future, which were raised by the U.S.-India nuclear deal and by Russia’s previous nuclear commerce with India. This strategy thus has the potential to resolve this issue in a way that strengthens the NSG, provides China with incentives to reconsider its cooperation with Pakistan, and gives Pakistan the international legitimacy it desperately seeks.