ISLAMABAD — China’s agreement to supply a second 300-megawatt nuclear power reactor to Pakistan encourages Islamabad’s ruling establishment, which is eager to develop the country’s nuclear energy potential in a significant way. The deal for the new reactor, to be located at Chashma in central Punjab — next to the first Chinese reactor of a similar size already built — follows recent reports of U.S. pressure on China to delay the agreement.

In recent months, Pakistan’s nuclear program has been under the global spotlight following revelations that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, sold knowhow and technology to Iran, Libya and, possibly, North Korea. The Pakistani government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf must draw satisfaction from Beijing’s apparent decision to ignore some of the pressures brought on it to withhold future nuclear deals with Islamabad.

The next stage in Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear reactors may be preliminary talks with China on a third reactor, expected to be built in Karachi, the southern port city — alongside the Canadian-supplied Karachi Nuclear Power Project.

Such deals reinforce Pakistan’s close ties with China. During the years that Islamabad was denied military hardware by Western suppliers, Beijing remained its closest ally, providing Pakistan with equipment for its defense needs.

Other ambitious projects under way at present with Beijing’s cooperation include construction of Gwadar port in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province, and Sino-Pakistani joint development of the JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has not failed to notice China’s emergence as a major economic power. Indeed, recent travelers from Pakistan to China have been taken aback by the modernization setting in across the once-stereotypical communist state. Thus Pakistan’s attempt to keep its relationship with China driven mainly by defense and strategic considerations is bound to compete with Beijing’s pursuit of economic and trade relations with other countries. How will Pakistan deal with the risk of its being eventually reduced to just one of China’s partners from a fundamentally close relationship up to now?

On the one hand, Pakistan needs to establish many more joint ventures with China in key areas beyond defense while taking fresh stock of the parameters that define security interests. In recent years, reports of a large number of Islamic Pakistani militants venturing into China’s northern Xinjiang region to recruit supporters for hardline movements, have not helped bilateral relations.

It was only the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York that forced Pakistan’s ruling establishment to order a tough military campaign against hardliners, including those involved directly or indirectly with activism in northern China. Activities aimed at undermining China’s internal stability and peace should never be tolerated by any Pakistani regime.

On the other hand, Pakistan must work aggressively toward encouraging its businessmen to venture into China in search of new investment opportunities. One downside of the relations with China has been that Pakistani businessmen have yet to launch large numbers of investments in China, despite the geographic proximity of the two countries.

So far, the largest segment of Pakistani visitors to China comprises small- to medium-size traders eager to import Chinese finished products that are subsequently sold on Pakistan’s markets for smuggled goods. Only Pakistani business and industrial ventures in China will move toward establishing a long-term economic partnership in a tangible way.

The agreement on a new nuclear reactor, after months of negotiations, marks an important phase in Sino-Pakistani relations. The deal underscores the extent to which China is ready to defy pressure from the United States. But in a changing world, a few deals related to nuclear power or defense may not be enough to assure strong ties well into the future.

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