This op-ed appeared in the Times of India on February 7, 2006 (Editorial, p.28)
While trying to contain and reverse the nuclear programme of Iran and North Korea, President Bush has launched a bold initiative to change 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.
Undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns and foreign secretary Shyam 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. Indian government 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 Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). In addition, civil nuclear commerce could be diverted to nuclear weapons programmes. India followed this route to test its first nuclear weapon in 1974, and Iran is now following a similar path.
India is far different from Iran, and a serious case can be made to change the rules on its behalf. In deliberating over whether or how to relax rules the US has worked decades to erect, the Congress should not be placed in a position of choosing for India and against non-proliferation. 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 non-proliferation. 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 18 countries 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 is 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 non-proliferation rules we want other countries to live by.
The argument that if Congress doesn’t make special rules for India, the new strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington will be placed at risk is particularly bogus. Indo-US relations are moving ahead smartly in defence 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. If 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.
Rules preventing proliferation will be stronger with India inside the tent. This depends on the circumstances under which India is invited inside. If 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 parti-culars 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.
A country-specific exemption that relaxes consensus-based rules of nuclear commerce is the wrong way to bring India inside the tent. NPT 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.
A one-off deal structured to apply only to India is likely to presage other commercial transactions that make existing proliferation problems far worse.