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India should beware of US motives on nuclear deal

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 03, 2007

    From all accounts it appears that the much talked about India-US nuclear deal is slowly but surely unravelling. This should not come as a surprise. Right from the beginning when the US secretary of State declared her country's intention to help India become a major power, we should have become alert since it is not very often that one major or superpower will help another to become a possible contender in the future. There were many other indications as well in terms of opposition to the deal. The US non-proliferation lobby vehemently opposed it. Both Democrats and Republicans only very reluctantly agreed to approve it and that too after much wrangling and very many amendments, although all the proposed amendments were mercifully not incorporated. The EU and NSG were also opposed to the deal as they perhaps saw themselves being bulldozed into relaxing rules for a new entrant at the behest of the US and more importantly since it was clear that America was pursuing its own national interests. China quietly opposed it but patiently watched the developments with hints of how it could also offer similar assistance to Pakistan.

    Within India, communists and other liberal leftists opposed the deal as they saw it as a sell out to the forces of imperialism. Indian scientists let it be known that they were extremely unhappy about one major likely implication and expressly said that India could not sign away its sovereign right to test in the future should a contingency necessitate our having to do so. Finally, the BJP, which had worked very hard to convince the US of India's security concerns through the seemingly interminable rounds of Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh talks, also joined the Communists in terming the deal a sell out as it was not in favour of ever giving up the option to test in the future even if the said option was not exercised for a century.

    India was, is, and shall always remain a very reluctant nuclear power. No political party, definitely not the Congress-led UPA, would ever go seriously beyond keeping the options open in developing a real 'minimum effective nuclear deterrent' or whatever else one may wish to call it. India's sporadic attempts at further developing its strategic missile capability is proof enough of such a weak-kneed approach. It seems India saw the US offer of a deal in 2005 as a rare opportunity for it to achieve at least three of its strategic objectives without having to make too many substantive commitments or sacrifices or take bold steps. India perhaps thought that it could quickly join the exalted club without paying the membership fee in terms of expenditure on nuclear weapons R&D, gain access to nuclear power technology, and overcome the refusal of the NSG to treat India as a legitimate customer for new technologies. Some optimists even went to the extent of dreaming up a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The fiasco of our nominee's withdrawal even before the contest for the UN Secretary General's post should have given us ample evidence of the reality of where India's actual position is in the global scheme of things.

    What is also surprising is the eagerness with which India so easily agreed to separate parts of its civilian and military nuclear establishment and declare the former for international inspection. The US had in effect already attained its longstanding objective of getting India to 'cap and roll back' its weapons programme since it now seems clear that the US would not want India to reprocess its spent fuel nor do any vigorous research in nuclear technology.

    Another important facet of this subject that has been pushed under the carpet is the problem of nuclear safety, reliability, cost of construction and waste disposal. The common man is perplexed to find that in all these long winding discussions there is no mention of these vital issues although just a few years ago every one was dubbing nuclear power as very expensive and unsafe if not downright dangerous. France, a long time user of nuclear power, has decided to scale back its nuclear power generation. The US, which is the main actor in nuclear power industry, has not constructed a new nuclear power reactor over the past two decades. Why then is the US so keen that India takes the nuclear route to meet its burgeoning energy needs? One obvious link is the vested commercial interests of the US nuclear power reactor lobby to sell equipment and technology to India and earn huge profits. The other less obvious reason could very well be American oil interests. What the US oil giants essentially want is for the global oil economy to continue to function exactly as it has been for the better part of the last century - under American control. By firmly getting India set on the nuclear power route, the US could ensure that New Delhi became dependent for new technology, stopped its own R&D efforts and continued to use ever increasing quantities of oil since even with all the new civilian nuclear power stations working to their capacity India would still require oil to meet its energy needs. US pressure on India not to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline is further evidence that Washington wishes to keep India tied down to traditional sources of energy supplies where US interests rule supreme.

    The so-called 'win-win' deal will also give the US increased leverage to arm twist India in its foreign and economic policy options. But if India decides to remain aloof from these overtures then it retains its options and flexibility. Going by the example of China, if India concentrates solely on strengthening its economy then a day is not far when the US and other countries will have to take notice of India's true power. As it stands, the proposed civilian nuclear deal may prove to be a major impediment to India's aspirations.

    It is worth considering the recent stance taken by small players like North Korea, Iran and Venezuela when they deal with US pressure. None has succumbed to America's strong-arm tactics, and Hugo Chavez has in fact upped the ante by withdrawing his country from the IMF and World Bank while Iran continues with uranium enrichment. What these show is that although the US undoubtedly continues to be the sole superpower, its capacity to influence the actions of even small countries is extremely limited and getting further reduced as it goes on blundering its way into Iraq.

    What then can India do? India could well start by simply slowing down the discussions with the US, while simultaneously building bridges with Russia, the EU, Japan, Iran and other oil producing countries in improving access to oil, gas and most importantly to alternative energy technologies so that it can safeguard its energy security, reduce its dependence on traditional sources of oil and also help fight global warming. Technologies such as solar, wind, coal-based methane, double integrated gasification, and bio-fuels offer a huge scope for dividends and also help build energy security.