A closed-doors conference being held in Christchurch this week on the supply of nuclear material will affect the fate of more than one billion people, say ZIA MIAN and DARYL G KIMBALL .
G lobal efforts to prevent the spread of the world's most deadly weapons depend on universal compliance with rules that constrain the sale of nuclear technology.
Too often, however, powerful states try to make exceptions from these rules, or simply ignore them, as a way to help their allies and to make money for their nuclear industries.
The next battle will be fought in Christchurch this week, at the closed meeting of the 46 member countries of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
The outcome of that meeting could potentially affect the fate of more than one billion people.
The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty came into force in 1970 with the aim of preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, eliminating the arsenals of the states that already had them, and ensuring that nuclear energy was only used for peaceful purposes.
The importance of controlling nuclear trade hit home in 1974 when India tested a nuclear weapon built with plutonium produced by a reactor supplied by Canada and the United States for peaceful purposes.
To stop this happening again, countries that sold nuclear reactors and related fuel technologies established the NSG to agree common rules to govern such trade.
In the 1990s, the 190 member states of the Nonproliferation Treaty and the NSG agreed that to be eligible to receive nuclear technology a country must have comprehensive international safeguards covering all nuclear facilities.
Only this degree of oversight could prevent the diversion of imported nuclear technology and materials for weapons purposes.
In recent times, the major nuclear suppliers have sought to change this rule.
Seeking to recruit India as a strategic partner to counter the rise of China as a great power, President George W Bush changed US laws restricting nuclear trade with India and pressed for a special exemption for India from NSG rules.
The exemption was strongly backed by France, Russia and the United Kingdom, who all hoped to sell billions of dollars worth of reactors to India.
In 2008, the NSG agreed to the exemption, over the protestations of the governments of New Zealand, Ireland, and Austria, who pointed out that India has not signed the Nonproliferation Treaty, and does not have international safeguards on all its nuclear facilities.
As a result of the exemption for India, New Delhi is now free to import uranium for its civil nuclear programme.
This will ease constraints on uranium availability in India, enabling it to use more domestic uranium for its nuclear weapons programme.
India will also get access to modern nuclear technology and opportunities to train scientists and engineers that it can transfer into its weapons programme.
Pakistan and Israel, who are still subject to the NSG ban on nuclear trade, have sought similar exemptions.
With a powerful army that dominates decision-making and a history of war and conflict with India, Pakistan has reacted strongly.
Pakistan's National Command Authority, which manages the nuclear weapons programme, declared that the exemption for India "would have implications on strategic stability" and vowed not to fall behind in the South Asian nuclear arms race.
Pakistan has accelerated efforts to increase its capacity to produce enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons, and has blocked the start of negotiations on a global treaty to ban the production of nuclear material for weapons purposes.
Pakistan has also asked its ally China to sell it two nuclear power reactors, which would violate current NSG rules.
When China joined the NSG in 2004, it had already built a power reactor in Pakistan.
China claimed at the time that a second reactor project was covered in its agreement with Pakistan.
There was no declaration at that time of any intention to build additional nuclear power plants in Pakistan.
Chinese construction of additional nuclear power plants in Pakistan would thus be inconsistent with China's commitments to the NSG.
Nuclear trade with Pakistan, as with India, would further fuel the arms race and instability in South Asia.
At the meeting of the NSG in Christchurch this week, responsible NSG governments should challenge China's proposed deal.
They should make clear that such a transfer would violate NSG guidelines.
The NSG should also be mindful that all United Nations member states are obligated to support Security Council Resolution 1172, which was approved just weeks after tit-for-tat nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998.
The resolution calls on Pakistan and India to refrain from further testing, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, stop producing fissile material for weapons and undertake other nuclear risk reduction measures.
To date, neither Pakistan nor India has halted fissile material production for weapons, nor signed the test ban treaty.
Since all NSG members are also signatories of the Nonproliferation Treaty, it is worth recalling that last month in New York treaty states , including China, reaffirmed that "new supply arrangements" for nuclear transfers should require that the recipient accept "IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] full-scope safeguards and international legally-binding commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons".
Approving the sale of Chinese reactors to Pakistan, or turning a blind eye to such a sale, would weaken both the NSG and the Nonproliferation Treaty.
Regardless, the pressure on NSG members to go along will be great.
The Obama Administration has objected to the deal, but not fought against it. Washington does not want to risk Pakistan's support in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
NSG governments must try at least to do no more harm.
Notwithstanding the 2008 exemption for nuclear trade with India, responsible states, like Japan and Australia, should resist commercial pressures for engaging in nuclear trade with India, which would feed the nuclear fire in South Asia.
A more substantial step would be for NSG members to demand that Pakistan and India commit to end the production of weapons useable nuclear material and allow talks to go forward on a global ban on the production of nuclear material for weapons purposes, and to make clear that all nuclear trade will be terminated if either country conducts a nuclear test explosion.
* Zia Mian directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University's programme on Science and Global Security. Daryl G Kimball is the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a non-governmental research organisation based in Washington, DC.
- The Press