Bottomline | The Nuclear Trap

From CTBT, the focus has now shifted to FMCT

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The Indo-US nuclear deal stands at the cross-road where distinction between perception and reality has blurred completely. There is a near unanimous consensus within the scientific community and media commentators that the deal is good for India because it is about development and the risen status of the country. Having missed the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty bus, here is the opportunity for India to get all the benefits of a nuclear weapon state without formally being accepted as one. The Left parties’ dogged position on the deal has contributed to this thinking. So has the US’ unrelenting pressure on New Delhi to stand up to its own coalition partners before it gets too late. While few are still questioning the merits of the deal, the focus has shifted to how the Congress should have its cake and eat it too; sign the deal and save the government from an early General Election. In this charged atmosphere, no one is asking that if indeed the deal is about India’s prosperity alone, why is Washington more anxious than New Delhi that it happens soon. Hardly a day passes when some US senator, official or a spokesperson does not remind us that the window of opportunity to sign the deal is fast closing. Just as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh views the deal as his legacy to the nation, so does President George Bush senses fruition of the bilateral nuclear understanding as the single triumph of his lacklustre presidency.

For the US, the deal would be the successful culmination of its decade-long efforts at non-proliferation since the 1998 Indian nuclear tests. Between 1998 and January 2001 before the Bush administration took office, the US’ focus was on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; however, since then the focus is on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. The end result sought by both is non-proliferation, with the Bush administration doing better than the previous Clinton administration. Since saying that India will not be allowed to conduct nuclear tests demeans India’s sovereign right, the thrust now is to ask New Delhi to stop production of fissile material ahead of the FMCT and to support the US’ position during FMCT talks. This is likely to be more acceptable than the earlier position as it does not appear menacing on the face. Unfortunately, few in India understand the impact of this on India’s credible nuclear deterrence. To recall, within hours of the 18 July 2005 agreement, top US interlocutor, Nicholas Burns had said that ‘eventually 90 per cent of India’s nuclear reactors will come under safeguards.’ What he was saying is that despite the provision in the agreement, the US was confident that it would not allow India to build more military reactors to of course produce fissile material. This is not all. The US defence industry determined to enter the Indian market in a big way would find transfer of technology easier after the nuclear deal is clinched. Without it, the US defence companies’ sincere intent would sound hollow. And of course, the US nuclear industry hopes to sell a few reactors to India.

From the Indian perspective, two add-on benefits that it hopes to accrue from the nuclear deal will not happen. Restrictions imposed by global regimes on transfer of dual-use technology, that India badly requires, will not be eased. China will play a leading and active role in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to ensure this. Transfer of state-of-the-art nuclear reactor technology will be backed by a leak-proof verification regime. On the one hand, India’s fissile material stocks will not be allowed to swell. On the other hand, dual-use technology for strategic usage will be disallowed.

The other advantage that analysts, mostly Indian, are fond of telling is that the US wants to build India as a counterweight to China and the deal would help the process. At best, this is Cold War thinking when battle-lines were clearly identified, at worst, it is sheer baloney. However much the US may be worried about China’s growing defence budget and influence within Asia and beyond, it is not unmindful of the facts that Beijing has a massive trade surplus against it, and it needs China for peace in certain regions like the Korean peninsula. For this reason, to count on the US to come to India’s side in case of a Sino-Indo crisis would be an unrealistic assumption. On the contrary, if the nuclear deal indeed comes about, China’s attitude towards India will harden further. China will continue to keep India under pressure on the border dispute, which now has been expanded to include Sikkim as well, and ensure that Pakistan’s strategic assets remain credible. In the meantime, Beijing’s wooing of India’s neighbourhood will increase double-time. The purpose of the heightening activities against India will be to demonstrate that the US support to India does not translate into New Delhi’s increased regional clout.

Even the Indian thinking, expressed by a few knowledgeable people like Brajesh Mishra, that non-consummation of the deal at this stage when both sides have already invested enormous time and energy, will adversely affect Indo-US relations, may not come to pass. Given the Bush administration’s dismal track record, it would be a fresh beginning for the next US administration, including in its relations with India. New Delhi need not worry about rushing into the nuclear deal.


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