Feeling Good?

Despite tall claims, India remains boxed in the sub-continent (April 2004)

The NDA government claims that national security has strengthened with the May 1998 Pokhran test and the induction of nuclear weapons. A former foreign secretary, who was associated with these matters, says, “While our conventional military prowess has not changed much, India’s prestige has grown in the world after we conducted the nuclear tests.” He specifically refers to three issues: The Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks which commenced after the 1998 nuclear tests, and lasted over a year, have been the longest ever engagement between the US and India. Their import was not in what they yielded, but that they spurred other important nations, including Japan, to engage India on strategic matters. The second reference is to the US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage’s visit to India in July 2001 to explain the Bush administration’s Ballistic Missiles Defence (BMD) policy. The US reserves such visits for its allies and major powers alone. The third achievement, interestingly, is not known to many. Despite being the staunchest votary of United Nations Security Council resolution 1172 of June 1998, which calls for India and Pakistan to roll back their nuclear weapons programme, China, in January 2004, he offered to engage India in strategic talks. “While we have accepted the offer, it is still not clear whether nuclear aspects will be part of the talks, “says the former top official.

Before we jump to the conclusion that strategic engagement with the US and other major powers has been the gain of nuclear tests, we must first understand what exactly does strategic engagement entails? On assuming officer, President Bush said, “We need new concepts of deterrence that rely on both offensive and defensive forces. Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation. “The security architecture comprises three elements: non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, and BMD. During the Clinton administration, when India conducted its tests, the emphasis was on non-proliferation, which consists of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Writing in the March-April 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs, US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott underlined, ‘Having India and Pakistan stabilise their nuclear competition at the lowest possible level is both the starting point and the near-term objective of the US diplomatic effort. Until India and Pakistan disavow nuclear weapons and accept safeguards on all their nuclear activities, they will continue to forfeit the full recognition and benefits that accrue to members in good standing of the NPT.’

The US was the real gainer form the Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh dialogue. India agreed to slow down nuclear weaponization, test-firing of ballistic missiles, and committed to no further nuclear testing. Officials, however, deny these allegations. “More than the US pressure, India’s slow peace of its strategic evolution is reflective of the Indian laid-back way of doing things,” says an MEA official. Whatever the explanation, the nuclear tests spurred Pakistan to gallop towards a credible nuclear deterrence. Unhidden from the US, the proliferation between China, Pakistan, and North Korea intensified, bringing even countries like Iran. Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya into the nefarious fold. Interestingly, all these countries are signatories to the NPT. For this reason, President Bush, on assuming officer, reversed the policies of his predecessor. He declared that the non-proliferation approach had not been successful. This put all the non-proliferation regimes on the backburner. India heaved a sigh of relief as it was no longer required to sign the CTBT, a treaty which was rubbished by the Bush administration.

This did not imply that India could do more tests. On the contrary, the US made it clear that India shall not be accepted as a nuclear-weapon state under the NPT. However, to ensure that India continue with its policy of slow weaponization, Washington offered a more varied, regular, and intense strategic engagement with New Delhi at five levels. In addition to the formalised interaction between the MEA and the US state department, both sides agreed to a Defence Policy Group (DPG) between India’s defence secretary and US under secretary for policy; a Joint Technical Group (JTG) to promote interaction in the field of defence production and research; a formalised interaction between the US Joint Staff and India’s Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to discuss tri-service institutions, military planning, and tri-service doctrine; and a structured dialogue between the US defence department’s Office of Net Assessment and its Indian counterpart to exchange views between the defence research and analysis communities in both countries.

Senior government officials claim that these interactions will help India in three ways: One, India has finally emerged as an important nation on US’ radar screen. Two, following US’ lead, other major powers have entered into similar strategic interactions with India, something unthinkable before the 1998 nuclear tests. And three, over time, India, as an English-speaking nation, a vibrant democracy, and a major regional power, could enter into a strategic and defence partnership with the US for stability in Asia. From the US perspective, the biggest gain from the multi-faceted engagement is transparency, which will allow the US to regularly measure India’s strategic thinking and its Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) capabilities. This, the US feels, is a better way to keep India’s ambitions in check. For these reasons, the US has engaged India in BMD talks, which are being conducted at two levels, conceptual and technical, by officials from the MEA and the DRDO.

The original BMD plan of the Bush administration underwent changes after 9/11 events. The earlier framework had two parts: a BMD initiative comprising National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD); and importantly, the US announced its intentions for deep nuclear weapon cuts, even unilaterally. After 9/11, the US has spoken little about unilateral nuclear cuts. On the contrary, there are indications that the US will commence nuclear tests to make bunker-busting and low-yield nuclear weapons. It is little surprise that after 9/11, China intensified nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation to Pakistan and encouraged it to clandestinely hobnob with what the US calls ‘nations of concern.’ India has consistently underplayed China’s activities because it hoped that the US would assist it in both the technical aspects of BMD and provide dual-use technologies. The Bush administration in early 2002 removed most restriction imposed under Enhanced Proliferation Control Initiative (EPCI) on India after its tests. Yet, restrictions remained on Indian facilities not under IAEA safeguards, namely, DRDO, Bharat Electronics and India’s Rare Earth Organisation. These restrictions were also supposed to be removed by the successful Trinity Talks between the US and India in late 2003. “The Trinity Talks, which comprises areas of space, nuclear energy, and dual-use technology was India’s initiative which the US finally endorsed.”  Says a senior MEA official. The US, according to sources, also indicated that it could consider selling Patriot anti-missile system to India. Moreover, the US assured that it would not come in the way of Israel selling its Arrow anti-missile system, which has US end-user restrictions, to India. “The US defence department has been more cooperative than the US state department,” says a former foreign secretary.

However, before the ‘Glide Path’ (US secretary of state, Colin Powell’s phrase for the unfolding of results after successful Trinity talks) could fructify, Pakistan’s blatant nuclear proliferation disclosures dashed India’s hopes. “Notwithstanding the full involvement of Pakistan’s establishment to proliferation by its scientists, the US, for strategic compulsions, has decided to uphold President Musharraf’s position,” says a senior DRDO official. This implies two things. One, the ‘Glide Path’ has been stalled indefinitely. Worse, having observed the inadequacies of non-proliferation regimes, the Bush administration has turned its attention to counter-proliferation aspects. The latter, until now, had been a vague concept and basically means pre-emptive strikes aimed at surgical removal of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) sites. The two operations where the US applied the counter-proliferation strategy have been less than successful. In 1998, the US cruise missiles were fired at a suspected Sudanese chemical factory which was later discovered to be a pharmaceutical factory. Similarly, US cruise missile firings until 2002 on suspected Iraqi WMD sites produced little results. The lesson learnt from these misadventures was seeking more transparency in verifications and aggressive policing. President Bush’s new initiative for non-proliferation aims to do exactly this.

Under the new non-proliferation initiative announced by President Bush in February 2004, India has been asked to join the core group of Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) of 2003, and also the Additional Protocol. The PSI implies more aggressive search and seizure of suspected cargo and shipments, while the Additional Protocol means that India brings more of its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. India has also been asked to further tighten its nuclear export control regime. This will mean tightening of legislation for better enforcement, keeping a close watch on activities of scientists, and ensuring that laws do not permit an offender to go scot-free. However, all this will not translate into any recognition of India as a nuclear weapon state. Moreover, the US is also pressing India to enter into nuclear and ballistic missile talks with Pakistan to ensure that neither country enters a WMD and delivery systems race. Besides important trade matters, the US secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell’s recent visit to India was also focused on these strategic weapon’s issues. For India, all looks bleak on the strategic aspects. On the one hand, Pakistan seems to have an edge over India in strategic arsenal including its command and control. On the other hand, the ‘Glide Path’ has taken a nose-dive even as India’s status remains the same as it was before the 1998 nuclear tests-that of a non-nuclear weapon state like Pakistan and Israel.



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