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Obama jeopardizing nuclear deal with India

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — Even as all eyes were focused on the issues of global economic revival, world trade and climate change, the Group of Eight sprung a major surprise on India during its summit at L’Aquila. The G8 statement on nonproliferation committed the advanced industrial world to implement on a national basis “useful and constructive proposals” toward strengthening controls on enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) items and technology “contained in the NSG’s ‘clean text’ developed at the Nov. 20, 2008, Consultative meeting.”

The G8 underscored the importance of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) toward the pursuit of nuclear disarmament by insisting that those states that have not yet signed the treaty become a part of it.

It was just last September that the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) had agreed to grant a clean exemption to India, thereby allowing nuclear exports of sensitive technology under safeguards to India. The latest G8 agreement on banning ENR items to countries that are not signatories to the NPT effectively puts the future of the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal of 2005 in jeopardy.

While India will still be able to buy nuclear fuel and reactors from G8 or NSG countries, questions will arise about the intention of the Obama administration regarding the future of the deal and if it would try to dilute the bargain contained in the “India exemption” of the NSG waiver of last year.

If the Bush administration was willing to work with India in convincing other countries about the strength of the nuclear deal with India, the Obama administration is lackadaisical. It is troubling for India that the Obama administration effectively sought to persuade the G8 countries to undertake the latest move at L’Aquila.

It was the promise of full civilian nuclear energy cooperation with India that made the deal so important for India and that changed the basic contours of U.S.-India ties. Now with the Obama administration trying to change the basic rules of the game, the situation is rapidly returning back to square one.

Though Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has remarked that “there is no basis for the apprehension that the Obama administration will be less sensitive to India’s concerns than the previous U.S. administrations,” the stark reality is that distrust of U.S. intentions vis-a-vis India at an all-time high in New Delhi.

Whether it’s the Obama administration’s stance on outsourcing, its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy or nonproliferation priorities, there is an underlying attempt at sidelining or ignoring Indian concerns. Now with a very aggressive U.S. stance at the G8, the ground realities of U.S.-India bilateral ties have become more complicated.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary’s Clinton’s visit to India this week, which resulted in the signing of a defense pact allowing U.S. defense companies to sell sophisticated arms to India and a pact on space, cooperation has done nothing to dispel apprehensions in New Delhi about U.S. intentions.

If 2008 was the acme of Indian diplomatic heft, 2009 is proving to be a difficult one. That the G8 adopted a declaration that is targeted at India should be seen as one of the major diplomatic failures for India, especially as Singh was an invited guest at the G8 forum. This is not only due to a change of guard in Washington but also an inability of Indian diplomacy to anticipate scenarios and adapt to new developments.

For India, the game seemed effectively over once the U.S. Congress gave a go-ahead to the 123 agreement. But there is no endgame in international politics and successful diplomacy anticipates new challenges that might emerge and takes them into account while formulating policy options. Indian diplomacy, on the other hand, is prone to getting blindsided by unexpected developments — it was this mentality that prevented India from enlisting the support of states that are going to be major beneficiaries of nuclear trade with India, such as France and Russia.

With the Obama administration likely trying to make a push toward the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, trouble for India might just be beginning. In many ways the G8 fiasco underlines the unique position that India holds in the global nuclear hierarchy. It is an outlier in every way. While the nonnuclear weapon states resent the special treatment that the U.S.-India nuclear pact gave to India, the nuclear-weapons states are reluctant to allow another nuclear state to emerge.

As the debate intensifies as to what needs to be done about the global nuclear architecture, India can credibly make a case that it is an outlier not out of choice but out of compulsion. When the basic bargain inherent in nuclear nonproliferation treaty was not adhered to even by the states that were supposed to be guarantors of the system, the treaty regime was bound to come unstuck.

China, a nuclear-weapons state, perhaps has the worst nonproliferation record among major powers and has actively colluded with Pakistan in letting nuclear security deteriorate in South Asia and beyond. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s nuclear record is so dubious that the world is still trying to come to terms with the nuclear Wal-Mart spawned by the father of the Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan. The international community has not yet been able to fully understand the spread of the Khan network, its consequences for the nonproliferation regime and how to avoid such situations in the future.

In neither case did the international community demonstrate the will and the capability to rise up to the challenge. The West kept on ignoring the proliferation records of China and Pakistan for its short-term ends. And India had to fend for its own security.

The Bush administration recognized the importance of resetting the terms of global nuclear discourse and of bringing India into the larger nonproliferation framework as a responsible nuclear state with advanced nuclear technological base. The Obama administration has decided to take a more traditional view of the problem and in doing so has once again put India on the defensive.

A defensive India flanked by two nuclear adversaries that have been colluding on nuclear issues for three decades is never going to be a part of the nuclear nonproliferation regime as designed in 1968. This is the challenge that confronts the international community as it tackles nuclear proliferation.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is a visiting professor at IIM-Bangalore.