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Challenge to India’s nuclear trade persists as suppliers group adds tighter guidelines

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

At the end of the second annual Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue held in New Delhi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that there were “issues” that had to be resolved by India and the United States in the civil nuclear field. She did not go into specifics.

She maintained that the U.S. remains “fully” committed to the pact with India, but Indian concerns have not been fully allayed.

A few weeks back, at its 2011 plenary meeting in the Netherlands, the 46-nation nuclear cartel, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), came up with new more restrictive guidelines regarding the export of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies.

Although the exact formulation of the new guidelines has not been made public, they seem to underscore that the transfer of sensitive ENR technologies will exclude nations which are not signatories to the NPT and do not have full-scope safeguards.

This has led to an intense debate in India as it seems to go against the spirit of the NSG exemption granted to India in 2008 when, in an unprecedented move, the NSG granted a crucial waiver to India, enabling it to carry out nuclear commerce, and ended 34 years of India’s isolation from the international mainstream in the wake of the 1974 nuclear tests.

This was a major step in the implementation of the U.S.-India nuclear accord and, since then, New Delhi has been working toward establishing a mutually beneficial partnership with friendly countries in an area which is important for both global energy security and climate change.

Describing it as a “historic deal,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had stated that “it is a recognition of India’s impeccable non-proliferation credentials and its status as a state with advanced nuclear technology.”

This move is being viewed as directed against India, shutting doors on commerce related to enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

Not surprisingly, senior Indian officials had already expressed their concerns regarding the new ENR rules suggesting that they would make the 2008 exemption granted to India meaningless.

There is a growing disquiet in India. Some of this is rooted in genuine apprehensions about India’s ability to take part in global nuclear commerce in the future but a lot of it is ideological.

Every setback on the nuclear deal front is viewed as a triumph by those who all along have been against the deal on ideological grounds.

The anti-American lobby is back with a bang, underscoring American perfidious behavior in trying to scuttle Indian nuclear ambitions.

The U.S. State Department has tried to allay growing concerns in New Delhi by suggesting that “nothing about the new ENR transfer restrictions agreed to by NSG members should be construed as detracting from the unique impact and importance of the U.S.-India agreement or our commitment to full civil nuclear cooperation.”

But this is not being viewed as enough, especially since, under the proposals that were mooted under the Bush administration, the exports of ENR technologies would have been banned for those nations that did not have them. That would have made India eligible for their transfers given India’s indigenous capabilities in the field.

India enjoys a unique status in the global nuclear hierarchy, and it was always going to be a difficult exercise in bringing India into the nuclear mainstream. It was the U.S. that expended precious diplomatic capital in bringing the naysayers around when the original exemption was granted to India in 2008.

Without the diplomatic heft of Washington, New Delhi would not have gained anything even with the tacit support and good intentions of Moscow and Paris.

But the Obama administration’s ideological rigidity on nonproliferation threatens to destroy the hard-won gains from the nuclear rapprochement between India and the U.S.

The Obama administration’s support for the new ENR guidelines also stems from its ideological commitment to whatever exists of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Successive U.S. administrations have viewed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the biggest threat to American and global security, but unlike its predecessor, the current dispensation in Washington believes that the regime framework needs to be strengthened in order to counter the proliferation threat.

New Delhi is not blameless either. India has been signaling that it doesn’t really need Washington to make the nuclear deal operational so that it can garner its benefits. This has been much applauded by those who want a more independent (read: anti-U.S.) foreign policy.

More applause followed when the Indian Parliament passed a nuclear liability law that makes it virtually impossible for U.S. companies to operate in the Indian market.

And now, when the U.S. is refusing to put its weight behind the NSG deliberations in favor of India, there is much heartburn about American duplicity.

Mired in domestic problems, the Indian government lost crucial time over the past three years when it could have settled this issue with some finality.

Now, the never-ending chaos surrounding the UPA government is raising serious doubts about its ability to take important and decisive steps in the realm of foreign policy.

The Indian government has now sought reassurances from nuclear partners, including the U.S., France and Russia, that they will stand by their earlier commitments. They have reiterated their adherence to understandings with India. But nuclear commerce is not a one-way street; India remains a huge market and it should leverage its assets accordingly.

At a time when the U.S. is working for India’s membership in the NSG, it is imperative that Washington and New Delhi work together to put the basic bargain obtained in the landmark U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact back in place.

Harsh V. Pant is the author of “The US-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process, and Great Power Politics” (Oxford University Press).