The Chinese decision to move forward on this project is once again a symbol of how China values Pakistan.
China on Tuesday gave its firmest government confirmation yet of plans to build two new nuclear reactors for Pakistan, but a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she did not know about talks over a bigger reactor deal. The spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China plans to help Pakistan expand its Chashma nuclear energy complex in Punjab by building two reactors in addition to one already operating and another nearing completion.
Her comments also suggested Beijing may see no need to seek approval for the two new Chashma reactors from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an international council of governments, some of whose members have voiced qualms about the deal. China joined the NSG in 2004.
"This project is based on an agreement signed between the two countries in 2003 about cooperation in the nuclear power field," Jiang told a news conference, citing plans to build the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors of about 300 megawatts each at Chashma.
"China has already notified the International Atomic Energy Agency about the relevant details, and invited the IAEA to exercise safeguards and oversight of this project," said Jiang. The Vienna-based IAEA declined to comment.
Up to now, Chinese government officials have been tight-lipped in public about the planned new units at Chashma, although the Chinese companies picked to build them have announced contract signings.
A diplomat familiar with IAEA procedures suggested it was up to Pakistan, not China, to ask the agency to get involved.
"The IAEA can only place a facility under nuclear safeguards at the request of the country that it is in," said the diplomat, who declined to be named. "If a country requests the agency to safeguard a facility then the agency would normally comply."
Jiang's statement that the new reactors come under a 2003 agreement may ruffle other countries that have pressed China to seek a waiver for them from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 46-member consensus-based body that seeks to ensure nuclear exports are not diverted to non-peaceful purposes.
The expansion of China's nuclear power ties with Pakistan has increased unease in Washington, Delhi and other capitals worried about Pakistan's history of spreading nuclear weapons technology, its domestic instability, and about the potential exceptions created in international non-proliferation rules.
Jiang was also asked about the China National Nuclear Corp's statement on Monday that it is in talks to build a 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor for Pakistan, in addition to the four smaller Chashma units built, being finished or planned.
But she had less to say on this.
"We don't understand this matter. You can make further inquiries with the company," Jiang said.
Pakistan is a long-standing partner of China, and has been suffering chronic power shortages.
To receive nuclear exports, nations that are not one of the five officially recognised atomic weapons states must usually place all their nuclear activities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, say NSG rules.
When the United States sealed its nuclear agreement with India in 2008, it won a waiver from that rule from the NSG after contentious negotiations in which China raised misgivings.
Washington and other governments have said China should at least seek a similar waiver for the planned new reactors in Pakistan.
But China now appears positioned to argue that the two new units at Chashma were part of an agreement made before it joined the NSG in 2004, and so do not need another waiver.
Beijing stayed quiet about Chashma at an NSG meeting in June and has not publicly sought an exemption.