August Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

On July 18, after a bilateral meeting, US President George Bush and Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, signed a joint statement, which bestowed virtual nuclear weapons status on India. According to the text of the joint statement, President Bush stated that as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states, thus paving the way for full cooperation between the United States and India in the field of civil nuclear energy.

India, in return, agreed to “…assume the same responsibilities and practices and acquire the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States.” The joint statement also identified responsibilities, including identifying and separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes in a phased manner and filing a declaration regarding civilian facilities with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); taking a decision to voluntarily place its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards; signing and adhering to an additional protocol with respect to civilian nuclear facilities; continuing India’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; working with the United States for the conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; refraining from transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that do not have them and supporting international efforts to limit their spread; ensuring that the necessary steps have been taken to secure nuclear materials and technology through comprehensive export control legislation and through harmonisation and adherence to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines.

In keeping with the binding nature of the understanding and its multilateral scope, US officials immediately geared up efforts to muster necessary support from other countries which have a role to play in sustaining the newly acquired status of India as a virtual nuclear weapons state.

Immediately after the signing of the joint statement, senior officials of the Bush administration informed their counterparts in the capitals of nuclear states that India was now part of the mainstream “because it has committed to undertake steps that they previously had not been willing to undertake.”

US Secretary of State Rice had a telephonic conversation with Mohammed El-Baradei, Director of the IAEA, to inform him that India had agreed to adopt all the responsibilities and practice of nuclear weapons states and thus made itself eligible to be a recipient of civilian nuclear technology. “There is a flip side to this argument of US officials and that is that India will have all the benefits of nuclear weapons states without signing the CTBT,” said a security analyst.

At a more concrete level, US officials intend to work on two tracks to make this understanding work, which in effect means that American companies would be allowed to provide safeguard material, safety material for nuclear reactors, and to cooperate on an industrial level in the establishment of civil, peaceful nuclear power in India. On the first track, the US Administration would work with the US Congress to endorse the understanding and on the second track they would consult with other countries of the nuclear club to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India.

Indian and US officials have been working on this understanding since US Secretary of State Rice visited New Delhi last March and floated the idea of full-scale cooperation between the two countries in the field of civilian nuclear energy. That resulted in a number of bilateral talks to give final shape to the idea, which is apparently part of the US policy “to help India become a major world power in the twenty-first century.”

Many experts believe that diplomats from the two countries have been working on the underlying compromise formula since the May ’98 nuclear explosions. The compromise formula, as devised in eight rounds of security dialogue following the nuclear explosions, is based on the principle that India should have more access to the technology necessary for its civilian nuclear energy programme in return for a meaningful constraint on its weapons programme.

Most of the conditions identified in the joint statement, which India has to fulfil, in return for full-scale cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear energy, were also part of the benchmarks formulated during the Jaswant Singh-Ian Talbot security dialogue in the late ’90s, which resulted in the lifting of sanctions imposed on India in the wake of the 1998 nuclear explosions.

The benchmark related to signing of the CTBT has, however, been eliminated this time and replaced with the condition of India “taking a decision to place voluntarily its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards; signing and adhering to an additional protocol with respect to civilian nuclear facilities.”

For the United States, the security dialogue with India was based on the principle that testing a nuclear device was a mistake and there would be no rewards. Even if there was some trade-off to secure India’s pledge to five benchmarks, the United States would continue to remind India that what it did was a mistake.There now seems to be a complete reversal of this principle.

The May ’98 tests by Pakistan and India were largely seen as a bad precedent for other countries which had the potential and imperative to go nuclear. The architect of the US-India security dialogue has said that, “Seeing the outcome of Singh’s visit to Washington, some — perhaps many — of those nuclear have-nots will be more inclined to regard the NPT as an anachronism, reconsider their self-restraint, and be tempted by the precedent that India has successfully established and that now, in effect, has an American blessing.” He has also said that the breakthrough in US-India relations could result in the breakdown of the international non-proliferation regime.

Even if one takes the statement of US officials at face value that the agreement is neither about granting India nuclear status nor about nuclear weapons, the fact that that piece of paper recognises India as a responsible nuclear weapons country and a state which has demonstrated its commitment to use its power carefully, is no mean achievement for India and has serious regional implications. Especially when Pakistan is dubbed a “Walmart of illicit commerce in dangerous technology.”

In the eight rounds of the Jaswant-Talbot talks, the issues related to Islamic extremism were discussed side by side with issues of non-proliferation and nuclear weapons. Thus Manmohan Singh’s reference to “unchecked proliferation in our neighbours,” cannot be taken as an off-the -cuff remark and part of the conventional mode of maligning Pakistan. It is substantive, especially when seen in light of the fact that such a speaker finds a willing audience in Washington.

On at least one count, India is being treated more leniently than even other members of the nuclear club. Whereas the five nuclear haves are observing a universal moratorium on the production of fissile material, the India-US understanding imposes no such restriction on the Indian nuclear programme. According to the text of the joint statement, India has only agreed to cooperate with the United States in the process of concluding the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva where it is being negotiated.

For people in Islamabad, all this was taking place at a time of increasing pressure with regard to trends of extremism in Pakistani society, which has been applied with renewed vigour after the suicide bombings in London and surfacing of alleged links of the bombers with madrassahs in Pakistan. At a time when Pakistan officials were supposed to be articulating their response to this “detrimental development” in Washington, the London bombings forced them to look in another direction.

Most analysts agree that all this points towards mounting pressure on Pakistan on the question of nuclear non-proliferation, especially when there are increasing voices in Washington critical of the Bush administration’s lack of concern over non-proliferation issues.

Going by the same logic, India should also be at the receiving end, but such a situation is unlikely to arise not only because the Bush Administration has extended the label of legitimacy to the Indian nuclear programme, but also because India has earned applause as a “responsible nuclear weapons state” from both sides of the proliferation divide in Washington. On the other hand, for Pakistani decision-makers, non-proliferation and the state of extremism in society remain a lethal combination. Despite repeated denials, even perceived links between the two have the potential of disturbing the whole edifice of Pakistani foreign policy.