Dance without Music

The July 18 agreement compromises India’s strategic independence  ( January 2006 )

From India’s national security perspective, 2005 has been a landmark year comparable to 1998 when India stunned the world by a series of nuclear tests.

The singular event that made 2005 unique was the July 18 agreement between India and the United States signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush. From a partnership, however unequal and awkward, between the two nations under the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), India will come completely in the US’ fold by this agreement once it is implemented. This implies that India will contribute more to US’ strategic and foreign policy objectives rather than its own. New Delhi will loose its strategic autonomy, the primary reason for doing the 1998 nuclear tests. Inclusive in strategic autonomy are India’s minimum nuclear deterrence and indigenous civil nuclear energy programmes.

And this is what the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice had set out to accomplish as one of her key objectives on assuming charge during Bush’s second term in office. Three issues provided the impetus: One, the US, under the NSSP, was unsecure about how much India would contribute towards Washington’s goals in the region. There was the fear that India might use the US technology and expertise to further its own strategic and foreign policy goals. Two, giving of even a limited US dual-use and high technology was possible only after India took more tangible steps regarding non-proliferation. While India had brought its export control regime regarding weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems to desired US standards under the NSSP, the need was for more transparency to ensure no internal proliferation (that India does not divert US’ technology towards its nuclear, ballistic and cruise missile programmes), and importantly, to limit India’s nuclear weapons ambitions. And there, there was a requirement to permanently de-hyphenate US relations with India and Pakistan. After having conferred the status of a Major Non-Nato Ally on Pakistan, the US could no longer continue to ignore President Pervez Musharraf’s request for more F-16s. Something had to be done to ensure that India did not take this US sale, as well as future sales, to Pakistan too hard. For example, the US defence department has recently (December 16) cleared the sale of six regiments (115 guns) of advanced M109 A5 155mm self-propelled artillery guns to the Pakistan Army. ( It is worth nothing that the US defence department has informed the Congress in writing that this sale will not affect the military balance in the region knowing well that the Indian Army does not have self-propelled guns).

With this in mind, the brilliant US strategy unfolded in three steps, Within weeks of assuming office, Rice visited India on March 16 and told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the US will help India become a major power in the 21st century. Just in case the government of India. Perplexed by the US unusual offer, did not give wide publicity to the transformed relationship, the US ambassador in New Delhi. David C. Mulford explained in the Times of India newspaper (March 31). That the US will now engage India comprehensively on three fronts: strategic, energy including nuclear energy and economic. In step two, President Bush telephoned Prime Minister Singh on March 25 to tell him that the US had decided to sell F-16s to Pakistan. Simultaneously, senior US officials in background briefings in Washington said that Lockheed Martin ad Boeing had been permitted to offer more advanced F-16 and FA-18 aircraft and co-production arrangements to meet the Indian Air Force’s requirement of multirole combat aircraft, It is another matter that for known reasons, India had always and only sought US’ high technology and not it weapons platforms. The unequivocal message from the Bush administration to India is that it no longer consider India’s military power in relation to Pakistan, but wants India’s military power to grow to meet challenges in Asia.

The last step perhaps had a bit of drama. The July 18 summit meeting was preceded by a detailed preparatory work spread over month that included a series of visits to Washington by foreign minister Natwar Singh, by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia followed by the National Security Advisor, M.K Narayanan and defence minister Pranab Mukherji. Yet, the July 18 Indo-US joint agreement was held up by a few hours as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted the chairman of the department of atomic energy, Anil Kokodkar, who was part of his entourage, to finally clear the deal. It was obvious that knowing India weakness for desiring a successful prime ministerial visit to the US, the Bush administration had shifted the goalpost further at the last minute. And this exactly is the problem: the Bush administration continues to ask for much more than it is willing to give in return. Unfortunately, fearing that the agreement may unravel Indian official and analysts close to the government are working overtime to interpret US’ growing demands positively. The truth is that the NSSP was not bad for India, while the July 18 agreement is simply too demanding and threatens to both undermine India’s national security, and its status in the region, just the reverse of what Rice and during her March 16 visit to India.

Unfortunately, relations between India and the United States are usually control versial because both sides interpret them differently. India works hard to infuse warmth in the relationship. Consistent attempts are made to either brush the unpleasant issues under the carpet, or to downplay their implications. The US, on the other hand, plays hard to get, extracting more concessions than are initially committed by New Delhi. For example, on the important question of why the US will help India become a major power, that led, amongst other things, to the July 18 agreement, India’s leading strategic analyst, K. Subrahmanyam, who is close to the government, says that, ‘dealing with China’s economic challenge rather than military challenge is the driving force behind US interest in helping India to build itself as a world class power. However, Robert D. Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India and considered aligned with President Bush does not take such a narrow view. He says that. ‘India leads the lists of key countries that share with us our vital national interests and are willing to do something about threats to these interests. ‘He lists the US vital national interests as: prosecuting the global War on Terror and reducing the staying power and effectiveness of the Jihadi killers; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction including to terrorist groups; dealing with the rise of China; ensuring the reliable supply of energy from the Persian Gulf; and keeping the global economy on track. To accomplish all these objectives, it was evident that the US needed a comprehensive and not a strategic relationship with India. Speaking with FORCE (October 2004), US ambassador in India. David C. Mulford said, “What I see is that a key strategic relationship has to be built into a comprehensive relationship. This means a lot of things, like military and defence ties, but really a geo-political broad relationship. Strategic, as you know, applies to a particular type of relationship. This relationship has been defined as the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) initiative.” Therefore the challenge for the Bush administration was to declare the incomplete NSSP, which it had initiated, as successfully concluded; and to convert it into an all-embracing comprehensive geo-political relationship wherein India would get inextricably locked into serving US’ vital national interests. To understand the implications of this comprehensive relationship, there is the need to step-back and consider the making of the NSSP.

It all came to public notice when Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to India and under secretary of state in the Clinton administration, in April 2000 declared that, A new and qualitative closer relationship with India cannot realise its full potential without further progress on non-proliferation. We also cannot and will not be able to concentrate on military issue until there is substantial progress on non-proliferation. Therefore, the key US requirement for a relationship with India after the 1998 nuclear tests was non-proliferation, and the warmth depth and comprehensiveness would depend upon how much and how fast India was willing to co-operate on the matter. Unfortunately, the approach of the Clinton administration was direct: it wanted India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, define its concept of minimum and credible nuclear deterrent both quantitatively and qualitatively; and go slow with its strategic weapons and delivery systems programmes. Surprisingly, Washington would have succeeded in all its objectives if the US Congress had not rejected the ratification of the CTBT, and President Clinton was not bogged down and enervated by the sex scandal. While remaining steadfast on the primary objective of non-proliferation, the Bush administration changed its predecessor’s approach: instead of seeing India as part of the non-proliferation problem, it started viewing India as part of the solution to strengthen non-proliferation objectives. Moreover, after 9/11, the realists and neo conservatives in the Bush administration agreed that tightening India’s export control regime was far more important than pushing New Delhi to cap or roll back its strategic programmes. This resulted in the NSSP initiative According to Ashely J. Tellis, who was senior political advisor to US Ambassador Blackwill in New Delhi during President Bush’s first term in office: What the Bush administration asked for in return (of NSSP) was that India institution alise comprehensive export control that conformed to the best international standards and that New Delhi not use the technologies made available under the NSSP to advance its own strategic weapon programmes, the US did not do so. Having offered the NSSP in the first place, the US in Bush’s second term, concluded that the NSSP was not serving its national interest.



Announced in January 2004, the NSSP drew inspiration from the Bush-Vajpayee joint statement of November 2001, and the achievements of the High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG) established in November 2002. While the November 2001 joint statement signed during the visit of Prime Minister A.B Vajpayee to Washington referred the two nations as natural allies the HTCG was general and broad based cooperation between the private industry in the two countries and dealt with issue as diverse as information technology, biotechnology, nano-technology and defence technology. US under secretary of state for commerce, Kenneth Juster told FORCE (July 2004), that ‘The NSSP builds on some of the analysis undertaken in the HTCG and addresses more sophisticated technology transfer issue between the two countries-issues that may not necessarily have as broad a commercial impact as the wide spectrum of high technology trade discussed under the HTCG,but which do have important commercial and political implications.”  The NSSP was meant to increase cooperation on the quartet issues of civilian space programme, civilian nuclear energy dual use high technology trade and dialogue on missile defence Speaking to FORCE (August 2005) India first National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, who led the team that clinched the NSSP with the US maintained that “The NSSP was to have three phases. At the end of the NSSP, we were looking at lifting up of all restrictions on India’s civilian nuclear and civilian space programmes. This is not what they (the US)  had in mind. They were looking at end verifications (transparency to ensure that the US technology is not diverted to strategic programmes), and the (capping of ) fissile material. ‘ It is another matter that India’s expectations from the NSSP were unrealistic. Ashley Tellis explains this by saying that, Civilian nuclear energy remained the least developed aspect of the new partnership, with Washington bound by prevailing restraints ( domestic and international obligations) able to demonstrate only modest forward movement, primarily in the area of nuclear safety Interestingly, regarding nuclear safety aspects, Tellis says that, Assisting India with respect to enhancing nuclear safety involves more than simply providing New Delhi with various technologies: As the Indian Department of Atomic Energy has repeatedly averred, the knowledge gained from the safe operation of US nuclear facilities could often be more valuable to India than the mere transfer of some discrete gadgets or components. Over the years, Indian atomic energy official have repeatedly sought information about technical safely practices, plant ageing data, operational safety procedures, probabilistic safety assessment benchmark analyses utilizing standard problems and emergency operating procedures-often without much success. Moreover, considering that India has only four safeguarded nuclear reactors, against 10 unsafeguarded ones currently in operation and nine others under various stages of construction, the US offer of ‘some mostly external monitoring devices that do nothing to enable India to operate its reactors more safely is trivial he adds.

However, on 17 September 2004, when Prime Minister Manmohan singh was in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly session, both sides announced that phase one of the NSSP has concluded successfully. According to the joint press statement, this meant, implementation of measures to address proliferation concerns and ensure compliance with US export control’s In simple terms, India has met the exacting US standards for its export control regime, and now it was the turn of the US, in phase two and three, to liberalise high technology exports, and ease restriction’s on sale of nuclear fuel and reactors to India. This obviously was not to happen. As a palliative, the US announced that it had removed the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) headquarters from the US department of commerce Entity List. However, all the ISRO Inertial Systems Unit, Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, Solid Propellant Space Boost Plant, Space Application Centre, Sriharikota Space Centre, and Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. Conceding that the only progress was in the area of civilian space cooperation thus far, a senior Indian diplomat involved in the NSSP negotiations made three positive points to FORCE: One, there was enough scope for cooperation in the area of civilian space programme. Two, the NSSP dialogue had led to a change in mindset in the US that now considered what India said positively rather than partnership cold grow even as the two countries had difference on Iraq trade, United Nations and so on implying that India was not being forced to review its national interests to align them with those of the US, This is exactly what was bothering the US about the NSSP.


The July 18 Agreement

While the agreement with the exception of China has been welcomed by all key nations in the world, it presents, at least, five problem areas for India. First, there is a sharp dissonance in India and the US on what the agreement is all about. According to India’s foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, ‘The Indo-US agreement is not about India’s nuclear energy cooperation.’ US under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Robert G. Joseph thinks otherwise when he says that, ‘We expect-and have indicated to the government of India-that India’s separation of its civil and military nuclear infrastructure must be conducted in a credible and trans-parent manner, and be defensible from a non-proliferation standpoint. In other words, the separation and the resultant safeguards must contribute to our non-proliferation goals.’ He further says that, ‘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 simple terms, the US is asking India that: the separation plan should be a one-shot affair and be finished quickly preferably before the proposed visit of President Bush to India in 2006; and it must include both facilities and activities implying power reactors research reactors breeder reactors enrichment facilities and reprocessing facilities. Such US position runs contrary to the agreement that mention that, the separation will be in a phased manner and voluntary. This automatically precludes the need for negotiations on this vital matter, something that the two interlocutors, Shyam Saran and US undersecretary for political affairs, Nicholas Burns are presently engaged in. A top official in the previous Vajpayee government who was intimately involved in the NSSP with the US told FORCE, “We had offered two power reactors to be placed under safeguards, and could have added two or three more power reactors to the list for movement on the civilian nuclear programme. But, the US reaction to our offer was lukewarm. They were simply not interested. It is evident that this time India intends to offer much more.

Second, the agreement will affect India’s minimum credible nuclear deterrence, which being minimum in nature is a flexible concept, comprising a mix of numbers and quality of warheads’ says the officer in the previous government. In addition to the requirement for adequate stocks of fissile material at reasonable costs, the issue at stake is Tritium production that is essential to the construction of India’s boosted fission and fusion nuclear weapons. Tritium has a short life (12.4 year half-life ), and can be produced as a by-product of the operation of a heavy-water moderated reactor. A limited amount of Tritium could also be made in any research reactor. Therefore, by placing all power reactor and a number of ‘activities’ under IAEA safeguards, India will forgo the options to produce Tritium. Easily and at a low cost, as a by-product, and weapon grade plutonium that can be extracted from a civilian nuclear fuel cycle. India’s strategist, K. Subrahmanyam, however is determined to bail out the government. He says that India should separate its civilian and military reactors without much difficulty. Interestingly, according to him, ‘Minimum credible deterrent is a politico-strategic and not a technical issue. ‘Wrong. In India, that has severe technical and technological constraints and is not a nuclear weapons state under the Nuclear proliferation Treaty, minimum credible deterrence is a combined politico-strategic-technical issue Instead of dividing the nuclear scientists’ community over the maximum that India can offer under the agreement, the government will do well to build a consensus on this vital issue. This assumes urgency considering that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly told Parliament that the agreement would be ‘reciprocal’.

Third, the US, ironically, is determined to strangulate India’s indigenous civilian energy programme that could produce unlimited quantities of Plutonium for use in both energy production and nuclear weapons, and substitute it with life long crutches. For example, India has limited quantities of natural Uranium researves that is used as fuel in all indigenous power reactors (the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, PHWR) currently operating and under construction (with the sole exception of the safeguarded Tarapur reactor).but has the second largest reserves of Thorium in the world. The challenge for the scientists is to use Thorium instead of natural Uranium as the nuclear fuel, which is encapsulated in a three-stage cycle that is already underway. In stage-I, the PHWRs use natural Uranium and produce Plutonium as a by-product. In the next stage, fast neutrons burn the Plutonium (produced in stage-I) wrapped in a Thorium blanket, to breed the Uranium isotope, U-233. This is being done at the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam. The FBTR, which achieved criticality in still at an experimental stage, implying a shortage of requisite quantities of U-233 to go commercial. This is attributed to technical challenges involved in separating U-233 on a commercial scale; because U-233 is highly radioactive, is invariably contaminated with U-232 isotope, Thorium (Th-228) also is highly radioactive, and technical risks associated with reprocessing in Thorium based fuel cycle have not been satisfactorily resolved. However, once this is done. In stage-III, which is years away, India will construct Advanced Heavy Water Reactors (AHWR), that will use the US-233 produced in stage-II, surrounded by a Thorium blanket, to generate enormous energy that will be sufficient to meet India’s energy demands this century and even beyond.

Encouragingly, the panel set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to prepare India’s Integrated Energy Policy has some good news that supports the indigenous civilian power route. Announced recently (December 14), by the head of the panel, Kirit Parikh, who is also a member of the Planning Commission. the report makes two points: One, ‘For the next 20-25 years, India won’t require the nuclear energy, but after that we cannot forgo the option. Even if a 20-fold increase takes place in India’s nuclear power capacity by 2031-32, the contribution of nuclear energy to the country’s energy mix would be five or six percent. Till then, coal will continue to be the primary energy source; And two, India has to succeed in realizing the three-stage development process of nuclear power and thereby tap its vast Thorium resources to become truly independent beyond 2050. Continuing support to the three-stage development of India’s nuclear potential is considered essential.’

The US, however, has different ideas on the matter. In a comprehensive work titled, ‘India as a global power: An action agenda for the United States, that was personally President Bush, the writer says that, ‘If India can be assured stable supplies of natural Uranium over the long term. It is possible that national decision-makers will not feel compelled to invest in the more risky Stage-II component of its nuclear energy programme on any but an experimental scale. Alternatively, if India is provided unconstrained access to various types of advanced reactors together with its appro-priate fuels, it is likely that New Delhi will postone implementation of the three stage cycle programme that would, incidentally, leave the country awash with more Plutonium than it could ever use either for energy production or nuclear weaponry. The problem however, is that under the present non-proliferation regime, all this is only possible if India rolls back its nuclear weapon programme, and accepts full IAEA safeguards on its current and future nuclear facilities. Considering that India cannot accept this proposition, the choices before the US are very limited. Which if accepted, will come to India at an enormous cost.

Fourth, the Additional Protocol that India will be required to sign with the IAEA and adhere to will not be the one meant for the Nuclear Weapon States under the NPT. India’s former National Security Advisor, the late J.N. Dixit was experienced enough to foresee what was coming. Writing in the FORCE ( March 2004), he said: “India would certainly be pressurized to sign the Additional Protocol which would involve India to make public practically all its nuclear activities and facilities and to allow international inspections. This proposal will further impact on India as it suggests that only countries which sign this protocol would be allowed to import nuclear equipment, technology and material. So it would not be enough if India wishes to import nuclear material and equipment for peaceful purposes under international safe-guards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It would become mandatory for India to abide by the provisions of the Additional Protocol with intrusive and expanded jurisdiction.”  Moreover, the NWS have the option both to decide and place the numbers of their civilian reactors under safeguard, and to lift them from safeguards at will and nominate some other reactors instead. This luxury will not be available to India, as US official Robert Joseph has said that India’s civilian reactors should be placed in perpetuity under IAEA safegurads. This rubbishes the interpretation by Indian officials that India will be treated at par with nuclear weapon states.

To get an idea about what the US could do for India after the latter has met stringent Congress requirements, Tellis rules out an outright purchase of unlimited nuclear fuel and nuclear technology including reactors from Nuclear Suppliers Group members or directly form US suppliers by India. ‘Treating India as the exception could unravel the entire non-proliferation regime at a time when it is under threat from multiple sources and when stronger non-prolifieration system is viewed as critical to US national security; he says. At best, what India will get is fuel for the safeguarded Tarapur reactor, and participation in various global nuclear research initiatives, the latter being within the domain of presidential initiative. Three such research initiative are Generation IV, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and the Radkowsky Thorium Fuel (RTF) programme. The Generation IV consists of 10 countries under the US initiative working on concepts of future reactor designs that are safe and economical. The ITER deals with work on nuclear fusion power plant to meet tomorrow’s energy needs, and the RTF aims to develop proliferation resistant fuel cycles using Thorium. Even as India has expressed a keen desire to participate in these research initiatives, and the US has already initiated discussion with NSG members on the subject the Bush administration is focused on satisfying the Congress. Compiled in a report prepared for the US Congress by specialist Sharon Squassoni, the key questions for amending US laws are:

  • How complete are India’s declarations of civilian facilities? What is the level of intrusiveness of the IAEA’s programme to inspect those facilities?
  • What is the added value of the Additional Protocol, given the likelihood that nuclear weapon facilities will not be able to be inspected?
  • How well is India’s export control implementation functioning?
  • What are India’s plans for its nuclear weapon programme and what is the possibility that US assistance could benefit that weapon programme?
  • If India is prepared to take on the responsibilities undertaken by other nuclear weapon states, is it prepared to stop producing fissile material for weapons? Is it prepared to declare some nuclear material as excess to its defence needs and place that material under IAEA safeguards?

It is evident that the US desires complete nuclear weapons and civil nuclear reactors transparency (present and future thinking and plans) from India in return for a mere assurance that the administration will work with the Congress and NSG members to adjust regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India, according to the agreement.

And fifth, the progress on the energy dialogue will impact on the strategic dialogue between the two countries. Besides an exchange of views on global and regional matters, the strategic dialogue has expanded the scope of mutul defence interaction. From the earlier military to military ties, the defence dialogue under the rubric of the Defence Framework’ includes licensed agreement for fabricating US defence equipment as well as co-production in India. While co-production is a futuristic issue because of the stark income-patiability between the two defence industries, the US focus is on selling hardwar with an assurance on product support. Case in point is the bidding for the Indian Air Force’s requirement of multirole combat aircraft. The problem, however, with buying US equipment is that Washington invariably links defence deals with politics. Should India’s relations sour with the US, there will be operational logistics problems for the services with US equipment. What then, are the options for India? It is certain that until the Bush visit to India continued pressure by the US will be maintained on New Delhi. The best option for India is to go slow with its civil nuclear separation plan negotiations with the US, and let the IAF’s requirement take its own natural course. However, the key issue is that the government should not lose sight of its strategic autonomy, both for minimum nuclear deterrence and an indigenous civil nuclear energy programme.



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