Energy needs take precedence over national security (August-2005)

Two things stand out about the recent nuclear understanding reached between India and the United States. One, while India has agreed to a roadmap of what it shall be required to do under the deal, the Bush administration has given mere assurances to work with the Congress to adjust US laws and policies, and with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enables full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India.’

Under such circumstances, the US will continuously push India to demonstrate tangible benchmarks on the agreed nuclear roadmap with nothing concrete to show in return. It is doubtful whether the Congress will actually listen to the Bush administration. And getting the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on board will be more difficult. If President Bush was indeed sincere about implementing his par of the deal, a Presidential waiver for domestic policies would have been a more appropriate action.

And two, it is now known that the Vajpayee government had offered to place a limited number of civilian nuclear reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The US had rejected the offer and wanted the deal that it has now clinched with the Manmohan Singh government: that India places its all-civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA. The reasons why the Vajpayee government did not rise to the US bait were two-fold: the Department of Atomic Energy had told the then government that placing all civilian nuclear reactors would have national security implications (see box). This is especially so because contrary to general perception, India does not stockpile fissile material, and is doing research with military implications in civilian nuclear plants. Moreover, nuclear scientists were confident that domestic supplies of nuclear fuel would resume in two to three years (see interview with Brajesh Mishra) for use in civilian reactors.

Consequent to the deal, plenty of government supporters have rushed to declare it a historic achievement. For example, a leading Indian commentator K. Subrahmanyam has made two points in support of the government. Firstly, by asking India to identify and separate its military ad civilian nuclear facilities, the US has recognized India as a military nuclear power. And secondly, in any case, the military and civil reactors in India work in watertight compartments. It is difficult to agree with his observations. The truth is that President Bush may have succeeded where his predecessor had failed: India’s nuclear weapons programme may finally be capped. This has been achieved in two stages; the first was accomplished by the Clinton administration’s deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott who met Vajpayee’s point-man Jaswant Singh on nuclear talks 14 times at 10 locations in seven countries on three continents’ between 1998 and 1999.

Strobe Talbott succeeded in getting India to exercise ‘strategic restraint’ which applied brakes on India’s nuclear weapon-sation: India agreed to go slow with its ballistic missile programme, accepted that nuclear weapons’ components would remain dissembled, and committed itself to no further nuclear testing. The problem, however, was that India was refusing to define its concept of ‘credible minimum nuclear deterrence.’ Implying that it would not place a voluntary freeze on its fissile material ahead of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). President Bush may now have accomplished this.

Under the terms of the recent agreement, India will purportedly be free to decide between its military and civilian reactors. This itself will be a difficult task. Considering that India does not stockpile fissile material, it cannot afford to designate more than the existing ones-Dhruv and Cirus-as military reactors as even these remain under utilized. All civilian reactors, on the other hand will be under IAEA safe-guards that will be made more intrusive by the Additional Protocol that India has agreed to sign. It goes without saying that the terms of the Additional Protocol, which IAEA will impose upon India, will be extremely stringent and unique. India, after all, is a non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT. Therefore, IAEA will do its utmost to ensure that nothing, which could even remotely contribute towards nuclear weapons research, is done at the civilian reactors. This would strengthen the international non-proliferation regime. It needs to be pointed out that the US has accepted India as’ a state with advanced nuclear technology with the sole purpose of ensuring that its minimum nuclear deterrence remains minimum even if it does not pro-vide a credible deterrence. It is this outcome of the deal that the US will explain to members of the NSG. The latter will not agree to conduct civilian nuclear business that it does with China under the NPT. However, a middle path is likely to be found by the NSG countries when dealing with India. After all, they will have the satisfaction of ensuring that India’s  nuclear weapon making capabilities remain stunted.


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