INDIA-U.S. NUCLEAR TALKS

Deal harms Indian interests

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — A real problem of an ever-shifting goal post has cast a cloud over America’s current negotiations with India to implement a much-heralded nuclear deal that is supposed to showcase the emerging global partnership between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies. Seeking to formally close their past disputes over nuclear issues, the two concluded an accord whose intent is bold but that operationally will constrain India’s ability to deter the larger of its two nuclear-armed neighbors, China.

In the period since the accord was reached in Washington last July, the challenges for both countries to translate their commitments into policy have been underscored by the storm of protests in India over the onerous obligations that country has agreed to undertake, and the growing concerns voiced by U.S. nonproliferation zealots that the deal legitimizes the Indian nuclear arsenal and weakens the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

The July agreement represented only a statement of joint intent. Now negotiations are under way to give effect to the July commitments. By the time U.S. President George W. Bush visits India in two or so months, the two sides will know whether they have settled the issues. Even then, the deal’s future will remain uncertain until the U.S. Congress makes necessary changes to U.S. domestic law and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group removes India as a target of its export controls.

Armed with leverage from the July accord, America is using the ongoing negotiations to try to limit the size of India’s nuclear deterrent, control its fast-breeder program and bring a maximum number of Indian nuclear facilities under international inspections. The negotiations also demonstrate America’s shifting goal post in relation to what all India needs to do and what Washington is willing to grant.

In return for a promise to be allowed to import commercial nuclear power reactors and fuel, New Delhi “reciprocally” agreed in July to a series of legally binding obligations that entail its observance of nonproliferation norms and extension of full support from the outside to the crisis-torn NPT regime. Most importantly, New Delhi agreed to put into practice what China refuses to do — civil-military segregation of its nuclear program — even before India has succeeded in building a credible minimal deterrent capability against Beijing. The accord is likely to escalate the costs and technological challenges of India’s deterrent drive.

Washington began moving the goal post no sooner than the accord had been signed. Although the accord spelled out India’s obligations as being reciprocal, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns declared the agreement “will have to be implemented by the Indian government and then we will have to seek these changes from the Congress.”

While the accord merely states that India will begin “identifying and separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner,” Washington has added specific conditionality — that such a separation plan be “credible,” “transparent” and “defensible.” Put simply, the U.S. has set itself as the judge to whom India is answerable in terms of its obligations. The accord was signed by bureaucrat-turned-politician Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not versed in international relations.

Singh dispatched his foreign secretary to Washington last week with a civil-military segregation plan, including the names of facilities India was willing to put under international inspections. After the plan was presented to the Americans for their approval, Singh’s national security adviser told an Indian TV network that India was open to further negotiations on that plan.

Yet another way Washington has moved the goal post is by seeking to renege on the accord’s central plank — that India would “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.” In recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph said “voluntary offer” safeguards of the kind the U.S. has with the International Atomic Energy Agency would not be acceptable for India.

The five NPT-recognized nuclear powers, under voluntary accords, offer nuclear materials and facilities for IAEA inspections in name only. The IAEA, in return, carries out token inspections or, often, no inspections “to conserve resources” for inspections in the nonnuclear states. Currently, out of 915 nuclear facilities the IAEA inspects worldwide, only 11 are in these nuclear-weapons states.

Joseph has also stipulated another condition not applicable to the other nuclear powers: safeguards on Indian facilities, he said, “must be applied in perpetuity.”

In contrast, a note released by the Indian prime minister’s office right after the accord stated that India “has committed [itself] to taking reciprocally exactly the same steps that the other nuclear weapon states have taken. . . . An argument has been made that separation into civilian and military programs will rob India of flexibility if that is required by unanticipated circumstances. Nuclear-weapons states, including the U.S., have the right to shift facilities from civilian category to military and there is no reason why this should not apply to India.”

America’s shifting goal-post approach brings out two things: that it is using the accord and the current negotiations to gain control over India’s nuclear plans; and that it will accept India at the most as a second-class nuclear power. Having failed over decades, the U.S. believes that at last it has a reasonable opportunity to get a handle on India’s nuclear program.

That approach casts doubt that the current negotiations would conclude in a manner that allows both sides to proceed with the accord’s implementation. It also underscores the accord’s inherently unequal bargain and its implications for India’s still-nascent nuclear military program. While Bush has made only a promise, which he may or may not be able to fulfill, the deal sets out a clear “road map” for India to traverse.

The deal, in fact, imposes obligations largely on India. Not only has India committed to carry out a burdensome civil-military segregation of its nuclear program and put all its civil facilities under IAEA inspections; it has also given its word to import commercial nuclear power reactors from the U.S. and thereby help revive the decrepit nuclear power industry there. The only U.S. obligation is to permit its industry to rake up billions of dollars worth of reactor and fuel exports to India.

Those supporting the accord have naively touted it as an answer to India’s growing energy needs. The fact, however, is that electricity generated by high-priced imported reactors dependent on imported fuel will not be commercially viable in India.

The U.S.-inspired ban on civilian nuclear technology sales to India dates back to the first Indian nuclear explosion in 1974. That test was triggered by the 1971 U.S. action in dispatching the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, in a move aimed at intimidating New Delhi during the India-Pakistan war, which led to the independence of Bangladesh.

Spawning expansive controls on export of an array of dual-use technologies to India, the ban has been a major stumbling block to the forging of a true U.S.-Indian strategic partnership — an important foreign-policy goal of Bush.

The deal strikes the weak spot of India’s nuclear military capability — its umbilical ties with the civilian program. India’s weapons capability is unique in that it flows out of the civilian nuclear program and continues to draw sustenance from it.

For Washington, the accord is an astute move. It profitably panders to India’s craving for status and helps buy Indian silence on widening U.S. support to military-ruled Pakistan. But is it in U.S. interests to limit India’s nuclear-deterrent capability against China, an opaque, rising empire of common concern?