03 March 2006
Bush, India and two degrees of separation
Thanks to public debate and hard bargaining, India's scientists have had many of their technical concerns about the nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States addressed.
But India must resist U.S. pressure -- or any temptation of its own -- to link the nuclear deal to a wider strategic realignment.
[See also see the editorial in The Hindu.]
3 March 2006
Bush, India and two degrees of separation
THE AGREEMENT reached by India and the United States last July was a historic one because it signalled Washington's willingness to end the isolation the Indian nuclear industry had been subjected to for more than three decades. The Bush administration hoped to use the prospects of civil nuclear cooperation as a lever to raise the level of political and strategic interaction with India to a new and unprecedented level. With the emergence of Asia as the primary arena for competition and contention between a clutch of big and rising powers, the U.S. considers India a crucial swing state that ought to be induced to get on the bandwagon so that America can negotiate its way through the `Asian Century' with its hegemonic power unaffected. And nuclear cooperation is a very big inducement. In the bargain, the U.S. can also keep oil prices down for its consumers by moderating India's hydrocarbon demand — a point made by President George W. Bush on Thursday — and help boost its own moribund reactor-building industry.
This was the theory, the big picture behind the agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush on July 18, 2005. When it came to negotiating the fine print, however, the remnants of the old non-proliferation theology continued to exert a fatal pull. As if the promise of a strategic alliance with India was not benefit enough, the Bush administration sought to use the nuclear agreement to achieve three other goals. First, place an upper limit on India's military nuclear capabilities by raising the cost of maintaining and extending those capabilities; secondly, direct the development of India's civilian nuclear industry away from technologies that would make it self-reliant in the long-run; and thirdly, curb India's own strategic instincts in Asia by raising the opportunity costs of its troublesome flirtation with countries like Iran or issues like an Asian energy and security architecture that might end up excluding the U.S.
That there were collateral political goals was obvious even before the deal was signed when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the Indo-U.S. energy dialogue at exactly the same time she publicly flagged U.S. opposition to the Iran-India pipeline. But as the Congressional hearings on the India-U.S. nuclear agreement started in August, it became amply clear that the administration was prepared to use (and even choreograph) the Executive versus Legislative divide in order to shift the goalpost on the technical parameters of the deal as well. The text of the July 18 agreement was pushed this way and that on the three issues that were under negotiation: the sequencing of the reciprocal steps each side committed itself to, the separation between civilian and military nuclear facilities India had undertaken to perform, and the nature of the safeguards agreement under which India's civilian facilities would be subjected to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It was precisely in response to this shifting of the goalpost that a complex, well-informed, and sometimes passionate debate took place in India. This debate centred primarily round the question of India's fast breeder programme, the status of its reprocessing and enrichment facilities, and the number of power reactors that might be placed under safeguards. Sensing the possibility of a disastrous compromise that would jeopardise the country's three-stage nuclear energy programme, the normally media-shy community of retired Department of Atomic Energy scientists entered the fray. Thanks largely to the contribution to the public debate of experts like A.N. Prasad, A. Gopalakrishnan (see here and here), M.R. Srinivasan, Placid Rodriguez, P.K. Iyengar, and many others who preferred to remain anonymous, the U.S. was forced eventually to moderate its expectations and even drop its demands on a number of questions. It is a matter of enormous regret that the scientists were attacked as troublemakers and deal-breakers by some advocates of the American position and subjected to a campaign of vilification.
Though the details of the understanding on the identification of Indian civilian facilities reached by the two countries on March 2 have not yet been made public and the spin being put out by both sides is quite different (see here for Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns's briefing), senior officials say virtually all of the concerns raised by the scientists have been taken into account.
There are still questions about the nature of the `India-specific' safeguards agreement to be negotiated with the IAEA and the kind of Additional Protocol that remain to be addressed. The U.S. has had its way on in-perpetuity safeguards [India will not have the right to withdraw facilities from its safeguarded list as the United States does] , though officials say India has built in an exit clause in case fuel supplies are cut off. It is also not clear if the U.S. will insist on laying down other criteria for the safeguards agreement and the Manmohan Singh Government will have to continue to be on guard so that India does not get entangled in unduly intrusive inspections. The importance of this issue should not be minimised. In some ways, the safeguards issue is likely to prove even more difficult than separation.
Although the energetic public debate — which presumably the Government was able to leverage at the negotiating table — has helped to ensure technical parameters most of the scientists can live with, the battle on the strategic front has only just begun. Citing difficulties in convincing its legislative branch — where the deal must be ratified — the U.S. administration will continue to exert pressure on India to toe the line on Iran and other issues.
On Myanmar and Nepal — India's immediate neighbours — Washington is keen on driving the political agenda, as was evident from Mr. Bush's remarks at the joint press interaction on Thursday. The nuclear deal may be a good bargain by itself but it is the strategic costs of proximity to the U.S. that India must never lose sight of.
This is where a little bit of separation would be really useful.
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