Negotiating the US-India Nuclear Cooperation Deal

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While trying to contain and reverse the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, President Bush has launched a bold initiative to change the rules of nuclear commerce to benefit India.  Bush has proposed carving out an exception for India that would permit nuclear power plant construction, if New Delhi proposes a credible, transparent, and defensible plan to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities, while putting the former under international safeguards in perpetuity. 

Last week, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and Foreign Secretary Shayam Saran met in New Delhi to discuss India’s preliminary separation plan.  The Bush administration has pledged that the separation plan must address proliferation concerns by not setting harmful precedents and by not aiding the build up of India’s nuclear arsenal.  The Government of India has its own sensitivities to address, including a separation plan that might force unwelcome choices between civil nuclear power and nuclear weapons.     

Much is riding on the outcome of these negotiations.  Companies that want to do business with India are gearing up to promote the deal, while those who worry about proliferation have pointed out downside risks.  India would gain the same benefits without the same obligations as states that have forsworn nuclear weapons, which could add more disgruntled parties to the Nonproliferation Treaty.  In addition, civil nuclear commerce could be diverted to nuclear weapon programs – hence the Bush administration’s insistence on safeguards in perpetuity.   India followed this route to test its first nuclear weapon in 1974, and Iran is now following a similar path. 

India is far different country than Iran, and a serious case can be made to change the rules on its behalf.  So far, that case has not been made.  In deliberating over whether or how to relax rules the United States has worked decades to erect, the Congress should 
not be placed in a position of choosing for India and against nonproliferation.  A debate worthy of the stakes involved would avoid the following bogus arguments:

India deserves its own set of rules because of its “impeccable” record of nonproliferation.  Compared to Pakistan, which hosted A. Q. Khan’s nuclear Wal-Mart, India is a model of commercial nuclear propriety.  But New Delhi’s record is far from impeccable.  It is one of only eighteen countries in the world that has not signed a treaty banning all nuclear weapon tests for all time. (Other outliers include Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Korea, and Cuba.)  It is one of only four countries – along with China, Pakistan, and North Korea – whose nuclear arsenals are growing.  And it is one of only three countries (with Pakistan and North Korea) that are now producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons. 

Let us accept that India has its own security imperatives for keeping such awkward company.  But let us not argue that this record is so admirable as to warrant major changes in nuclear export controls.  India is a responsible state.  It doesn’t deserve special treatment for keeping its house in order and for refraining from exporting bomb-making equipment.   It does deserve special treatment for helping with its energy needs – if ways can be found to do this without seriously damaging the nonproliferation rules we want other countries to live by.

If the Congress doesn’t make special rules for India the new strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington will be placed at risk.  This argument, which was hatched in India and has now migrated to the United States, is particularly bogus.  Indo-US relations are moving ahead smartly in defense cooperation, trade and investment, agriculture, public health, and many other areas.  As proponents of the deal rightly argue, there is every reason to believe that our two countries will work side by side in the years to come on promoting democracy and combating terrorism.  Some day in the future, New Delhi will gain Washington’s support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  It is false and foolish to assert that all of this would be jeopardized if the nuclear deal were not consummated in the exact form contrived by perhaps a dozen individuals negotiating in extreme secrecy.  If the Congress acts in ways to address the deal’s proliferation risks, bilateral Indo-US relations would still survive and prosper.  Otherwise, the basic premise of a strategic partnership is deeply suspect.

The rules preventing proliferation will be stronger with India inside the tent.  This depends on the circumstances under which India is invited inside.  If the rules preventing proliferation are bent out of shape to accommodate India, the tent will be in greater danger of collapsing.  Let’s defer this argument until we see the particulars of the deal – what nuclear facilities India agrees to designate as civilian instead of military, and what type of safeguards India consents to place on designated civilian facilities.  These particulars will affect the calculations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which operates by consensus, and which would need to approve a country-specific exemption for India.  If the consensus rule is broken, and if the Bush administration pushes forward with the deal, then other commercially-driven “exemptions” can be expected.  China and Pakistan have already begun to tee up their own deal. 

A country-specific exemption that relaxes consensus-based rules of nuclear commerce is the wrong way to bring India inside the tent.  The Nonproliferation Treaty and its reinforcing structures have been built on norms, rules, and standards of responsible nuclear stewardship.  These rules are not always followed, but having them in place makes us safer and provides the basis for prosecution, coalition building, and enforcement against rule breakers.
Country-specific exemptions for friends do real damage to the standards we seek to impose on troublemakers.  The way to address India’s concerns is by creating a new set of standards whose overall effect is to strengthen the rules against proliferation.  If India meets these standards, it should be welcomed inside the tent.  Since the standards we set in India’s case could apply to others, these standards must accord nonproliferation a higher priority than the profit motive.

The Nonproliferation Treaty was negotiated during the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  It doesn’t account for India, nor did it anticipate the A. Q. Khan network in Pakistan, or the pressing problems we now face in North Korea and Iran.  Nonproliferation rules need to be adapted and strengthened to deal with new threats – including the threats to our global environment due to carbon emissions.  Surely, there can be room for India, a responsible state living in a dangerous neighborhood, into a rules- and standards-based nonproliferation system.  But New Delhi, the Bush administration, and industry backers of the deal need to drop bogus arguments.  A one-off deal structured to apply only to India is likely to presage other commercial transactions that make existing proliferation problems far worse.


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