Bottomline | Friends, Not Partners

India needs to sign the long-pending bilateral agreements with the US

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The two big takeaways from the second summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama were the strategic vision document and operationalisation of the civil nuclear deal. With the first document, India hopes to extend its influence beyond its neighbourhood and the second one is expected to provide round the clock electricity to its people. The unsaid propeller for both aspirations is India’s quest for US’ high technology.

From the US’ standpoint, the first document envisages India as a more reliable partner than it has been in the past for security in the Asian arc running across Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. The second document is about non-proliferation rather than high technology nuclear commerce.

The driver for both documents is China — the most powerful nation in Asia — which looms large over the fortunes of the US and India. Concerns about China had spurred the Vajpayee government to conduct the 1998 nuclear tests and thereby seek high technology from the US. Apprehensions regarding China had also fired the imagination of US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice to work on an intimate relationship with India beyond the Bush-Vajpayee’s ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’.

Arriving in Delhi on 16 March 2005, Rice stunned India and the world with two public announcements: the US had de-hyphenated its relationship with India and Pakistan, and it would help India become a major power. ‘India needed civil nuclear power and wanted to break out of the constraints on high-technology cooperation that were stunting its growth,’ Rice wrote in her memoir No Higher Honor adding, ‘Indians made clear, too, that they hoped to become a customer for US military hardware. That was an exciting prospect for the (US) defense industry.’

This led to the signing of the 10-years defence framework in June 2005, and set the stage for the US visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sign the 18 July 2005 agreement — with civil nuclear deal as its centrepiece.

In the US however, Manmohan Singh developed cold feet. Having grasped the full import of the July 2005 agreement, he did not want to sign the document. Singh, Rice writes, even refused to meet her to discuss this further. Realising its negative implications for India’s strategic programmes, the Prime Minister felt he would have difficulty in selling it to his country. It was eventually sold as civil nuclear energy deal alone. On her part, Rice writes, ‘the key was to get India into the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), even if they could not and would not be a party to the Non-Proliferation.

Treaty… better to have India in the tent in some fashion.’ The US held that if it could restrict India’s fissile material stocks, it would help restrain Pakistan’s fissile material capability as well.

The Manmohan Singh government agreed to the US-led (not voluntary) separation plan of placing 14 of its 22 thermal power reactors under IAEA safeguards between 2006 and 2014. The jubilant US interlocutor, Nicholas Burns declared that eventually nearly 90 per cent of India’s nuclear facilities will come under safeguards, even as Manmohan Singh had announced the same day that only 65 per cent would be under safeguards and India had full right to build future civil reactors outside safeguards.

By ratifying the Additional Protocol with the IAEA (signed on 15 March 2009) on 22 June 2014 within weeks of assuming office, the Modi government opened the door for nuclear diplomacy which led to the recent operationalisation of the civil nuclear deal. The acceptance of the India-specific Additional Protocol has perhaps restrained dynamism inherent in India’s Minimum Nuclear Deterrence.

This is not all. It is uncertain if India’s deep desire for high technology trade with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will be met anytime soon. For one, China, as a NSG member will disallow India’s entry into the exclusive high technology nations’ club, which works by consensus. For another, it is debatable whether the US as the leader of global restrictive regimes, will allow India unobtrusive membership.

Regarding China — the prime reason for the deal —, India will need to first have credible deterrence against China’s military power before its reliability is accepted beyond its geography. And, this is not about nuclear weapons, but conventional capabilities beyond tanks, aircraft, submarines and other traditional stuff. It is about high technology for its indigenous space, cyber, and conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, and a range of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — areas where China is strides ahead of India and a catch up in not possible.

The answer, according to innumerable Indian experts, is to balance China’s military pressure on the disputed border by being a part of US-led security matrix for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. The two issues are different and dangerous to contemplate. When China does intrusions and transgressions across the 3,488km disputed border or incites Pakistan to open a second front, no one, including the US, is expected to stand up even diplomatically for India. India alone will have to combat its land threats. In military terms, it would be hazardous for India to have its home-base vulnerable before it ventures out to support friendly nations through an aggressive foreign policy, with or without the US.

The answer thus lies in acquiring high technology which the US will not part with unless India goes beyond mundane military to military cooperation. For this, India will need to consider US’ 2009 demands regarding Logistics Support Agreement, Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum, and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial cooperation — designed to improve interoperability.

Moreover, for the Indo-US Defence Framework — agreed to be extended for another 10 years — to succeed to help build a genuinely robust indigenous defence industry, India should consider loosening up the bureaucratic grip for creating good management which can deliver.


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