China has privately agreed to follow a "step-by-step" approach to fulfilling Pakistan's aspiration for an expanded nuclear energy program, rather than sign an ambitious civil nuclear program of the kind recently struck between the U.S. and India, senior Pakistani and Western officials said on Thursday.
Private discussions are believed to have been held on expanded nuclear cooperation between Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari and Chinese leaders during Zardari's four-day visit to China, which began Tuesday.
A senior Pakistani government official, familiar with discussions between Zardari and Chinese officials, claimed Thursday that China had agreed to "consider further nuclear power reactors to fulfill our needs. The relationship (on the nuclear issue) remains intact". Speaking to CBS News on condition of anonymity, the official added, "there is now a complete understanding on our future cooperation".
China has installed a 325-Megawatts nuclear power reactor at Chashma, in Pakistan's central Punjab province. Beijing is also currently working to install a second power reactor of the same capacity there. In ten years, Pakistan plans to produce up to 8,000 Megawatts of electricity using nuclear energy.
In addition to the two Chashma reactors, Pakistan has one Canadian-supplied nuclear energy reactor with a capacity of 137-Megawatts. Western diplomats say Pakistan is seeking to bridge the large gap between its installed capacity and future ambitions with Chinese help.
Western diplomats say China is interested in maintaining a stable relationship with Pakistan for a number of reasons: China sees its relationship with Pakistan as a way to counter-balance growing U.S. ties with India. In the long term, China also considers Pakistan as a conduit to expand trade with the oil rich Middle East to improve its economic and energy-related interests.
However, a second Pakistani official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said China is eager to avoid a direct confrontation with the West on its nuclear energy cooperation with Pakistan. "China is not seeking a head-on clash with anyone. It wants to broaden its relations with Pakistan but without the risk of a stiff U.S. reaction," said the official.
U.S. reluctance to offer a civil nuclear power agreement to Pakistan stems mainly from revelations in 2004 that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, traded nuclear secrets and technology with Iran, Libya and North Korea. Khan has remained effectively under house arrest since then.
Requests from the Western officials, notably the U.S., to interview Khan have all been denied by the Pakistani government.