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Good Day for India?

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 25, 2005

    The joint statement issued at the Manmohan Singh-Bush summit held in Washington (July 18) has generated considerable interest and anxiety in both countries for the manner in which it has addressed the nuclear issue. It merits recall that the nuclear determinant has bedeviled the bi-lateral relationship between the US and India for well over three decades since India's Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in 1974 – which was further exacerbated after the May 1998 Shakti nuclear tests that gave India a de facto nuclear weapon status. The recent agreement has the potential to radically alter the perception of the nuclear nettle with considerable benefit to India's energy requirements and the relevance accorded to Delhi in the international nuclear comity.

    The global community led by the US had introduced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970 and the world was divided into the five Nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the remainder who are deemed to be non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) – for eternity. India, Pakistan and Israel have remained outside the NPT fold and each of the three has a distinctive nuclear pedigree and profile in the global calculus. Consequently they have been kept outside the global nuclear strategic and trade loop and have been treated as outcasts – however unjustified this may be – for they have broken no law by staying outside the NPT fold. But this is a reflection of the realpolitik that underpins the international systemic.

    The US had maintained an inflexible 'roll-back, cap, eliminate' stand apropos India's nuclear aspirations and anxieties since 1998 and earlier. Till the end of the Clinton Presidency in early 2001, the nuclear issue remained intractable in the India-US bi-lateral context. After the arrival of the Bush team in the White House in January 2001, there has been a radical transformation in US nuclear policy beginning with the rejection of the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and later the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty – actions which were driven by the perceived US national interest, as interpreted by the Republican party.

    Simultaneously the Bush team hinted that they would arrive at a squaring of the circle in terms of India's nuclear profile and this was accelerated by the events of 9-11 and the AQ Khan revelations. Many high level dialogues were conducted by the professionals on both sides leading to the creation of the NSSP (Next Steps in Strategic Partnership) framework that examined the potential for co-operation in civilian nuclear energy, space, hi-tech commerce and a dialogue on missile defences. Begun by the Vajpayee led NDA government when India indicated that it could enter into a give and take arrangement that would tacitly admit India into the global nuclear fold, this reached fruition in the July 18 statement.

    The relevant paragraph is quoted in detail given its import and the significance of each word. In the preamble, the US agreed to recognize India as a 'responsible' state with 'advanced nuclear technology' and that it would be accorded appropriate facilitation for its civilian nuclear programmes and its energy requirements in particular. In return

    "The (Indian) Prime Minister conveyed that for his part, India would reciprocally agree that it would be ready to assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States. These responsibilities and practices consist of identifying and separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner and filing a declaration regarding its civilians facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); taking a decision to place voluntarily its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards; signing and adhering to an Additional Protocol with respect to civilian nuclear facilities; continuing India's unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; working with the United States for the conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty; refraining from transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not have them and supporting international efforts to limit their spread; and ensuring that the necessary steps have been taken to secure nuclear materials and technology through comprehensive export control legislation and through harmonization and adherence to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines."

    The operative phrase here is "reciprocally agree" to what has been enumerated and the conditionality would be similar to what would devolve upon other NWS – such as China in the Asian context. This framework is no different from what the NDA government had mooted during its dealings with the Clinton administration but at the time the US led by the Democrat Party (with a strong non-proliferation trait) was unwilling to budge from its stated position. However the Bush team has taken a very bold and radical step to accommodate India and this shift is testimony to the personal determination that Mr. Bush has arrived at by way of improving the bi-lateral relationship with India.

    Against this backdrop, the anxiety that has been generated on both sides is understandable. The non-proliferation ayatollahs in the US and elsewhere are livid that India which was castigated for its May 1998 tests has been 'let off the hook'. The first major broadside has been fired by Mr. Strobe Talbott, the former US Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration and the principal American interlocutor with the NDA government who has opined of the India-US nuclear deal as "Good Day for India, Bad for Non-Proliferation." (See www.YaleGlobal July 21, 2005). While Russia and France have been supportive, UK has conveyed its objection to the accommodation proposed by the US. The Chinese response will also be critical by way of the consensus among the major nuclear weapon states within the NPT fold. And it is expected that Pakistan will seek similar dispensation as India. To that extent patient negotiations will be called for before the sequencing of activities between India and the US on one hand, and the global nuclear cartels on the other, is arrived at. This will be contested but it does not seem improbable at this stage.

    In India there is anxiety that the core national interest has been compromised and that this is the beginning of the end of India's autonomy in the nuclear domain. This position is untenable if the fine print of the July 18 statement is examined. The US has not accepted India as a de jure NWS as per the NPT framework. It has only accorded India a tacit de facto status so that India's civilian nuclear programme is given appropriate support and its burgeoning energy requirements are addressed. This incidentally has become critical if India's GDP growth rate and enhancement of per capita income is to be sustained – let alone improved upon. To that extent it could be asserted that India's economic and energy security mandated this give-and-take arrangement proposed in the July 18 statement. By agreeing to assume certain protocols mandated by the IAEA (of which body India is an important member) there would be no intrusive inspections – as is feared. The anxiety in India is that once the thin end of the wedge is allowed by way of access to the global community, then the roof will cave in. This fear is counter-factual, emotive and exaggerated. It does little credit to the tenacity of the Indian politico-nuclear-diplomatic establishment who have successfully defended the Indian interest during periods of dire adversity by way of the opprobrium that Delhi's perceived obduracy had elicited for decades. The exact details of what India will identify for such scrutiny – as applicable to other NWS – is yet to negotiated. But it will be 'no more and no less' than applicable to other NWS.

    India has already entered into 13 agreements with the IAEA beginning December 1966 till March 1994 for the management and regulation of some of its nuclear facilities as required by the relevant international norms. This is imperative – for Delhi cannot sustain its civilian nuclear programmes in a totally insular and stand alone manner. The July 18 statement is important for it alters the perception about India in the global nuclear domain – an initiative led by Mr. Bush and the US administration – and the benefits for India in the long run are potentially enormous and will grow. The paradigm shift is that the nuclear issue that had become a bone of bitter contention in the India-US bi-lateral relationship now has the potential for becoming an arena for mutually beneficial co- operation.

    The separation of facilities into military and civilian is common practice among the NWS and there are country specific agreements that individual states enter into with the IAEA. And this possibility is not new in the Indian context. It is almost two decades old and was first mooted by the late Dr. Raja Ramanna – one of the doyens of India's nuclear establishment – and a professional whose understanding of the Indian interest in matters nuclear is second to none. For sure there will be differing technical assessments among the nuclear scientific professionals but reconciling them with the imperatives of the day is part of the Indian democratic ethos.

    It is also misleading to infer that the proposed arrangement will lead to a 'cap' of the Indian nuclear arsenal. Post May 1998 the NDA government had stood by the no-first-use policy and the commitment to a credible, minimum deterrent and a self-imposed moratorium on further testing. Nuclear restraint was and is the Indian USP. One assumes that the NDA government had arrived at a determination about how much fissile material India would need for the medium term and accordingly India entered into the FMCT (Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty) under UN auspices. This is all part of the Indian parliamentary record. Hence the suggestion by the luminaries of the NDA at this stage that the July 18 agreement is tantamount to a jeopardizing of the Indian strategic capability is perplexing and counter-factual.

    However India has a track record of intense debate and contestation about the nuclear issue as part of its democratic DNA and this is unique. No other nuclear weapon state has had such a candid debate and this is gratifying. The nuclear issue in India has traditionally been dealt with in a very guarded manner – and given the apocalyptic destructive potential of the 'nuke bomb' it is encouraging that the matter is receiving this degree of illumination and critical attention. At the end of the day, the nuclear option – when exercised by any state (including India) is a dishonourable one, even if it is inescapable – for it goes against the normative humanism that should be the Holy Grail for those managing this diabolical capability on behalf of their states. And to that extent total nuclear disarmament – however elusive – should remain the lodestar as PM Manmohan Singh reiterated in Washington.

    The July 18 agreement at this stage does not compromise India in the nuclear domain in any manner. It has the potential to admit India into the global fold of nuclear commerce and strategic management and will advance India's overall national interest through the next few decades of the 21st century. The issue needs objective assessment as opposed to emotive, counter-factual Pavlovian reflexes that generate more heat than light.