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Prospects for Indo-US cooperation in civilian nuclear energy

January 06, 2006

When the Prime Minister of India and the President of the United States signed a joint Statement on July 18 last year, which included, inter alia, a move towards lifting the three decades old regime of technology denials on India and an implicit recognition of India's nuclear weapons programme, negative reactions were expected: disbelief and distrust in India, and outrage from the non-proliferation lobby in the US, still deeply convinced of the need, even after thirty years, to "cap, roll back and eliminate" India's nuclear weapons ambitions.

For some time, in particular before the Seventh Review Conference of the NPT in May 2005, ideas were floated on how the "problem three" - the three countries that had stayed out of the Treaty, particularly India, could be brought within its ambit. Amongst those who preoccupied themselves with this issue were analysts such as Strobe Talbott and Geoge Perkovich. However, while Perkovich was of the view that India should on no account be given access to nuclear fuel or technology, the former had in fact referred to the possibility of 'permitting' "the government in New Delhi to receive some of the international help it seeks in developing its civilian nuclear programme"- but, in exchange for India accepting the CTBT, stopping the production of fissile material, accepting safeguards on its nuclear facilities etc. Talbott also linked the arrangement with India to a similar one with Pakistan. It is no wonder that his wish list did not fly. The reason for referring to these proposals is to bring out clearly the differences and similarities with the agreement finally reached in July 2005. For the first time it appeared that an American Administration had accepted a relationship with India on its merits: recognizing India's economic and strategic interests, and the US' own interests in supporting the growth of India's strength and power in Asia.

Since July, however, the pressures from the naysayers has been sustained, vociferous and intense, more so in the US than in India. In India, the serious objections come from ideological quarters which view with dismay the growing closeness of relations between India and the US. This does not appear to have affected the Government's policies in this regard substantially, yet. The other set of doubters in India, much less influential than the former, base their reservations not so much on the 'deal' itself, as the viability of its implementation; this issue will be visited later.

The attack on the 'deal' in the US is currently focused on trying to influence the US Congress as it considers approval (or rejection) of the US Administration's proposals, though there are also efforts to influence international opinion against any exceptional treatment of India by the non-proliferation regime. Both Pakistan and perhaps China seem to be part of this effort, given latest news reports on Pakistan's approach to the IAEA for permission to engage in civilian nuclear cooperation to meet its energy requirements. Since this is obviously unlikely to be accepted, given the A Q Khan history, its only purpose could be to influence NSG members against the proposal to 'island' India within the regime.

The efforts of the US non-proliferation lobby seems to operate on two assumptions and on one, perhaps deliberate, omission: most important, it assumes that in the event of the 'deal' "being modified or (to be) delayed or perhaps (if it) fade a bit," Indo-US relations, particularly strategic relations, will develop normally. This somewhat hopeful prognostication was made by a representative of the Monterey Institute at a recent interaction with India's Foreign Secretary. That this was not merely wishful thinking but egregious reasoning was made clear by the Foreign Secretary, both in his comprehensive presentation when he referred to suggested "improvements" to the Agreement as 'deal-breakers', as well as in his candid and well-articulated responses to questions raised during the interaction. He concluded his presentation by stating that "India US relations are at a crossroads. We have two clear choices before us. One is the road we have travelled before, one that will maintain the status quo and the distance between our two democracies."

The second assumption is that India, in its eagerness to avail of cheaper and higher quality uranium as fuel for its nuclear programmes, and its 'ambition' to be recognized as a Nuclear Weapon State, would be vulnerable to pressures to curtail its strategic programme. This is a road already travelled.

The glaring omission in the arguments of the non-proliferation lobby is the crucial importance, to the US, of India's energy needs; if nuclear energy is not easily available, the gap in requirements would necessarily have to be filled by hydrocarbons, adding pressure to the global market, not to mention the establishment of linkages with countries which would be more forthcoming in energy cooperation. Ashley Tellis has identified US interests that are served by nuclear cooperation with India, in his testimony to the US House Committee on International relations; overlooking this aspect when discussing the agreement is surely a major lacuna.

Would the opposition, within India and in the US, succeed in derailing the deal? One cannot predict the outcome of a work in progress. It needs to be noted, however, that the US Administration and the Indian Government appear to be serious in pursuing the agreement, whatever doubts think tanks, analysts and political groups may have. All signs appear to be propitious: India has joined ITER, the NSG has had a first round of discussions on exceptionalising India, US Congressional hearings have started; India has presented a blueprint for the separation of its civilian and non-civilian nuclear facilities, and appears to have made some significant advances in identifying the kind of safeguards which could apply. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, in his interaction referred to above, said: "As long as there is a guarantee of assurance of lifetime supply of fuel, I don't think India would have a problem with lifetime safeguards." This goes a long way to meeting an issue that had been raised by Robert Joseph of the US State Department Non-proliferation department. The US response has apparently been "good", "positive" surprised at the thoroughness of the Indian proposal. So the deal may in fact go through. The problems, in my view, will then begin.

Firstly, India will have to enter into negotiations with the IAEA regarding placing civilian facilities under safeguards; even if the Board of Governors accepts a new type of safeguard for a non-NPT country. For precisely this reason, inspections are likely to be more intrusive and frequent than in the case of the other recognized Nuclear Weapon States. Perhaps for a while this may indeed be the case, but given financial constraints, and if India is able to convince the IAEA, as it has been able to convince the US, that it is a 'responsible' nuclear weapon State, the irritation of inspections might diminish. There is no doubt that the non-proliferation regime, if not the NPT itself, will eventually have to change to adapt itself to the reality of a fourth category, NWS, NNWS, non-NPT countries and India.

Secondly, India has agreed to sign an Additional Protocol; the question surely arises, additional to what? Its original safeguards agreements with the IAEA are Inf.Circ. 66 agreements; the new safeguards would be a variation. Again, it is my own feeling that this would not be an insuperable obstacle. One of the main worries would, however, remain, though in the realm of contingency and some speculation: would our unilateral moratorium on testing stand if one of the P-5, China, for example, or even the US, conducts a test? If, on the basis of reciprocity, India then carries out her own tests, would the arrangement hold? Would supplies of fuel be disrupted leading to an abrogation of the safeguards agreement with the IAEA? These are perhaps bogeys of the future, and need not be addressed now; the point is, however, even if, and when, the July 18 deal is through, there will be years of careful navigation required.

One cannot resist a last thought: in the event the deal does not go through, what would be the consequences? It has been calculated that the impact on India's energy programme would not be so severe as to adversely affect our economic growth; the impact, as has already been pointed out, would be on Indo-US relations as a whole and its potential for economic and commercial interaction. There would also be a possible change in the course of India's foreign policy. In an age of inevitable globalisation, can India again become inward looking? The domestic political fall-out would be greatest; it, therefore, does not fail to surprise, that there is so little political awareness- raising in the country. It is imperative that the issue be taken up politically, by the Government and its allies, if only to forestall the possibility of a backlash.