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Time to redeem or reject nuclear deal

By S Raghotham
Last updated on: February 23, 2006 19:17 IST
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Ominous signs of what the July 18 India-US nuclear agreement will mean for India in the long term emerged from US Congressional hearings even before Ambassador David Mulford unintentionally revealed the tone and tenor that Bush administration officials have been adopting in their talks with Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The signs were visible before the current tug-of-war even began over the Fast Breeder Reactors. Yet, Dr Singh is even now rushing the nuclear separation plan.

As the Western media has been gleefully reporting, Indian officials 'are working overtime' to draw up the nuclear separation plan before President Bush sets foot on Indian soil in March. All this is being done much against the advice of many Indian nuclear scientists and strategists and without so much as a debate in Parliament, let alone its consent, to please President Bush and the US Congress.

'N-deal ends nuclear isolation'

The July 18 India-US Joint Statement was a result of a Bush administration initiative to find new allies who could help it counter new threats in the post-Soviet world, especially the threat arising from China.

America's traditional security ally, Europe, would not be of much help against the China threat. A Europe moving into a 'post-modern zone of peace' neither has the capacity nor the willingness to act militarily far outside its boundaries, especially against a potential China-scale threat. Moreover, Europe's geopolitical equations with China are configured to help build a multi-polar world order to temper American unilateralism, not to help it perpetuate and expand its already hegemonic superiority.

America's other Cold War ally, Japan, is facing an increasingly acute demographic problem and is unlikely to continue to be a useful ally for long against a China-scale threat. That is unless Japan finally 'turns the last screw' in to become a nuclear weapons power itself, a prospect that the US would certainly not relish.

US wants a win-win nuclear deal with India

For both its rising capability and intent India, American realists have concluded, is its best potential ally. Thus, building a strategic relationship with India is in America's interest. Since American championship of nuclear non-proliferation rules against India has been the main hurdle to building such a relationship, the Bush administration decided to eliminate that hurdle.

It was in accordance with this spirit of the July 18 Joint Statement that the Indian embassy in Washington issued a 'backgrounder' on the civil nuclear agreement. It claimed that the implementation of commitments would be reciprocal; that India's separation of nuclear facilities would be voluntary, dictated by its national security considerations, and reversible; that India would take on only the same obligations as the other nuclear powers; and that the agreement would not in any way affect India's nuclear weapons programme.

'Bhabha wanted India to be a Nuclear Weapons State'

Subsequently, however, under the pressure of the US Congress and the non-proliferation lobby, the Bush administration has let the agreement turn into an instrument of non-proliferation policy rather than strategic partnership as originally intended.

The July 18 agreement has, in fact, turned into an American second-order non-proliferation effort -- that is, since the US could not stop India from becoming a Nuclear Weapons State, it will now try every trick to restrict India's nuclear capability and posture close to the current levels.

Congressional testimonies by Bush administration officials between September and November 2005 show clearly that its interpretation of the Joint Statement has changed and is now directly contradictory to the Indian reading of its spirit and purpose. As Dr Anil Kakodkar, chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, put it recently, the US has shifted the goalposts.

'India's nuclear arsenal must be diversified'

Worse still, Bush administration officials have testified that they have conveyed to the Indian government the new conditions they require India to fulfil and that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has agreed to them. Mr Saran never thought it necessary to inform the Indian people of this development, we got to know it from the testimonies of Bush administration officials.

According to Nicholas Burns, the chief US interlocutor on the nuclear deal, he had told the Indian leadership that 'it must craft a credible and transparent plan and have begun to implement it before the Administration would request Congressional action…Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, assured me that the Indian government will produce such a plan.'

It seems that the Indian government is ready to submit its plan for separation for the Bush administration's approval first and then wait for the administration to present its nuclear-related amendments for congressional approval, neither the contents nor the outcome of which is assured. If undertaken in this fashion, this procedure will put the Indian nuclear programme -– both civil and military -– under grave risk.

Indo-US nuclear tango

One only has to look at how American officials now envisage the deal to understand this risk. For instance, what does 'credible and transparent' mean in the Bush administration's reckoning? This was spelt out by Robert Joseph, the US undersecretary for arms control and international security. 'We expect -- and have indicated to the Government of India -- that the separation and the resultant safeguards must contribute to our non-proliferation goals.'

Further, 'during Under Secretary Burns' recent talks in Delhi, we have discussed some straightforward principles. Safeguards must be applied in perpetuity. India (will) not be granted de jure or de facto status as a Nuclear Weapon State a 'voluntary offer' arrangement of the type in place in the five internationally-recognized nuclear weapon States would not be acceptable for India. We would not view a voluntary offer arrangement as defensible from a non-proliferation standpoint or consistent with the Joint Statement.'

India has to make compromises

What's worse, 'Obviously, the number of facilities and activities that India places under IAEA safeguards, and the method and speed with which it does so, will directly affect the degree to which we will be able to build support for full civil nuclear cooperation.'

In effect then, although the plan for separation of nuclear facilities may be drawn by Indian hands, its terms will be dictated by the US and 44 other Nuclear Suppliers Group countries to further their non-proliferation goals.

First, unlike the NPT-recognised nuclear powers which offer their nuclear facilities for inspection 'voluntarily', based on their convenient definitions of which of their facilities are civil and which military at any given point of time, India will not be allowed to make a voluntary offer -– that is, India will have to open up those it declares as civil facilities for intrusive inspections on demand, anytime, anywhere.

Second, safeguards will have to be applied in perpetuity – that is, while the P5 nuclear powers can interchange their facilities between 'civil' and 'military', India will not be allowed to do so. For civil nuclear cooperation to continue, those that India declares to be 'civil' facilities cannot ever be used for 'military' purposes, even temporarily. If India does seek to do so, it will open itself to blackmail by the NSG countries which can stop all cooperation.

Why Bush has to deliver in India

Third, not only will India be subject to forced and perpetual inspections once it has declared separate civil and military facilities, but even before the actual separation, the US and NSG countries will dictate to India as to how many and, crucially, which facilities it can retain as military facilities and how many as civilian.

Now, imagine a situation in 2020 when India has bought several reactors and other nuclear paraphernalia and is producing 20 gigawatts of power from them. India's industrial might and economic growth would then be predicated on the continuance of nuclear cooperation.

Suddenly, India's assessment of its security environment changes -– because Pakistan and China will have continued their weapons programmes unhindered -- and it will need to use some of its civil facilities for military purposes. But it will not be able to take a sovereign decision to do so without putting nuclear cooperation at risk.

India's ability to use civilian facilities for military purposes, something the P5 nuclear powers can do with their own facilities, will be subject to the veto of 45 NSG countries. And India will have to choose between national security and the 20 gigawatts of power driving its economy.

Worse is to come.

By far, the most dangerous change of interpretation has happened with regard to the Bush administration's understanding of the relationship between civil nuclear cooperation and future nuclear testing. India already maintains a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing.

Now, an India-France nuke deal

In the Joint Statement, India agreed to continue with it, and the September 8 testimony of Robert Joseph recorded this faithfully. On November 2, however, Joseph told the SFRC that India's 'pledge' to maintain its nuclear testing moratorium contributes to non-proliferation efforts 'by making its ending of nuclear explosive tests one of the conditions of full civil nuclear cooperation.'

Again, if 10 years from now, India decides to resume nuclear testing, it will have to choose between civil nuclear cooperation and national security.

No wonder that Bush administration officials have been pleading with congressional committees not to break the deal by piling on additional conditions. If India follows the American reading of the Joint Statement, as the Manmohan Singh government seems willing to, the US will have already achieved what has been impossible until now: India will have submitted itself to the key principle of the NPT -– that you can't have both a running weapons programme and civil nuclear cooperation unless you are one of the NPT-recognised nuclear powers.

The time to either redeem or reject this deal is now. The India-US nuclear deal must go through as an imperative of America's national interest -– in which case, there should be no American or NSG conditions on India – or not at all.

Next: N-deal: Be careful what you wish for

Srinivasa Raghotham is an associate and columnist for the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, Britain. He writes a column titled 'Strategic View' for the CDISS

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