Monday, February 13, 2006

United States-India Strategic Partnership

India tested the nuclear device in 1974 and in 1998. It enunciated a strategic doctrine in 1999 that entailed a (i) no first-use policy; (ii) a policy of minimum credible deterrence; (iii) a moratorium on nuclear testing; and (iv) strict adherence to the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. The nuclear tests had provided India with immense strategic wherewithal and transformed it into a significant player in the international realm. Many in the United States began to view India in a different light despite the earlier history of suspicion and distrust.

The United States and India have since derived a strategic commonality. There has been a congruence in perspectives vis-a-vis the threat posed by China as a "super-power in waiting", the Islamist challenge to global stability and shared democratic values. Some American strategists envision India as a potential key ally along with Australia, Britain, Canada and Japan. There is talk of the United States offering India F-16s, increased cooperation in outer space in terms of launch vehicles and satellites, and the provision of Patriot and Arrow missiles. The United States-India nuclear deal, as initially conceptualized in July, 2005 fell into the same vision of strategic congruence. The proposed nuclear deal entailed American support to help meet Indian energy needs.

The American assistance was premised on the understanding that India in turn needed to fulfill its role as a responsible nuclear power. This reportedly entailed the requirement to (a) separate its military and civilian nuclear facilities; (b) throw open its civilian nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency; and (c) legally commit to the international nonproliferation regime. So far so good.

However, the proposed deal necessitates Congressional approval. The United States will need to revise existing legislation to waive restrictions on the transfer of nuclear technology to states that are not party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The bottlenecks arise at this point. The United States and India are both democracies with multiple interest groups and ideological viewpoints. Neither country has a monolithic policy environment.

Several non-proliferation ayatollahs in the United States Congress, the Department of State, think tanks and academic institutions harbor a deep suspicion of India that go back to the years of the cold war. There are entrenched pockets of skepticism at India's nuclear ambitions. Such ideologues insist that the United States not reward those countries which had violated the nonproliferation treaty.

The Bush administration, it appears, has been compelled to shift goal posts since the initial announcement of the planned United States-India nuclear deal in July, 2005. Press reports suggest that it now demands that India designate most of its nuclear facilities as "civilian nuclear facilities" open to international inspection. There is intense pressure for India to cap its production of fissile material. There are increased calls that India place its fast breeder reactors and pressurized heavy water reactions under the international safeguards regime. Fast breeder reactors produce five times the fissile material as conventional reactors.

The new demands are intended to ensure speedy ratification of the proposed nuclear deal by the United States Congress. However, they would also roll back and cap India's nuclear capability. This is clearly unacceptable. Many Indian decision makers are justifiably alarmed by the sudden demands given the history of the United States going back on its earlier word to supply fuel to the Tarapur nuclear plant, exerting pressure on the Narasimha Rao administration to cancel the planned nuclear tests in the early 1990s, and blocking Russia from providing cryogenic engines to India.

The United States has 140 nuclear power, test and research reactors of which only 4 are international safeguards. China has only two nuclear facilities under international safeguards. India already has 4 nuclear reactors out of a total of its 23 reactors under international inspection. Of the 915 nuclear facilities worldwide under international safeguards, only 11 belong to the five "nuclear powers". This is an illustration of double standards. India will need to exercise caution before designating an entire slew of reactions as civilian facilities placed under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. India can not place the fast breeder reactor under international inspection. The civilian power reactors that feed these with plutonium can not be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards either.

India perhaps has 31% of the world's known deposits of thorium. This is the world's highest thorium reserves and would allow India to eventually achieve energy independence and increase its stockpile of fissile material. India might have additional reserves of Uranium as well given recent discoveries in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Meghalaya. India is already a defacto nuclear weapons state.

The Manmohan Singh administration had negotiated in stealth given the sensitivity of the issues at hand. This had inadvertently served to reinforce the fear amongst several Indians that the proposed deal would be a sell out. It is clear that more debate, discussion and thought will need to go into the proposed United States-India nuclear deal. Given policy reservations in both camps, it is entirely possible that the nuclear deal will not be finalized anytime soon.

However, all is not lost. Continued cooperation in the strategic realm is inevitable. This is not a make or break deal. India's need for civilian nuclear power will remain. The need to delink its military and civilian nuclear facilities is inevitable. Once delinked, it might well make sense for India to privatize its civilian nuclear facilities and reduce the monopoly of the Department of Atomic Energy. Meanwhile, America's interest in seeing a strong India counter-balance China will not change either.

I see no reason to rush things. India will need to drive a hard bargain before the current draft of the nuclear deal is finalized. There can not be any short cuts and there can not be a cap in the production of fissile materials as yet given current levels of nuclear stockpiles in India. It will need to ensure nuclear parity with Britain and France given the real threat at its northern frontier.

The country is fortunate to have Dr. Abdul Kalam, a pre-eminent scientist, as President of the Republic. One can be reassured therefore that no decision will be made that will compromise India's long term interest under his watch.


Anonymous said...


There was an article in the ToI today on how the Chinese forged their nuke-supple deal with Washington. Made for interesting reading.

Anonymous said...


Nice article.

Though what is not clear to me is why India can't open its fast-breeder reactors to inspection.

Anonymous said...


The current racket in the media is more the NPA's trying to regain ground lost in the july 18 agreement. There is much rancor about not being consulted etc... ignore them.

privatize nuclear power in India - so as to break the monopoly of DAE?

I don't think this going to happen.

Nuclear power will remain under the DAE for the forseeable future.

Reliance might be allowed to operate NPPs built by DAE - but that is the limit. About the only thing that will come from non-DAE sources will be the Uranium that fuels the reactors - everything else will be 100% indigenous DAE stuff.

Coal is a problem - we can't transport enough of it. Too much ash.

Anonymous said...


a minor grouse - you state, rather imply, India as having violated the NPT (while you refer to the non-proliferation ayatollahs)


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