The Darker Side of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal

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The American media is gushing about improvements to the United States-India relationship in the wake of President Barack Obama’s January visit to India. Among the achievements stemming from the visit is what the media had called a “breakthrough” that paved the way for implementing the two nations’ civilian nuclear cooperation deal. However, examining the reasons why this deal was first struck, its components, and its side effects suggests that it is a cause more for concern than for celebration.

The U.S. long considered India to be the leader of the non-aligned camp and held that it was tilting toward the USSR and, later, toward Russia. India purchased most of its weapons from Russia, and it had a pseudo-socialist economic regime. The U.S. tilted toward Pakistan throughout the Cold War and in the years that followed. However, following the rise of China, the George W. Bush administration decided to lure India into the West’s camp and draw on it to help contain China. Bush therefore offered India civil nuclear technology and access to uranium, the fuel it needed for nuclear power reactors. The Indian government agreed to sign a 123 Agreement (or the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement), but the deal ran into considerable opposition within India. Hence the resulting impasse, which Obama has now helped resolve.

A variety of considerations drove Indian opposition to the deal, including concerns about liability, threats to Indian sovereignty, and the prospect of Washington enjoying heightened leverage over New Delhi. Critics in the West correctly raised other concerns. First, the deal violated the spirit if not the letter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT has successfully discouraged several nations that had considered developing nuclear weapons and has even led a few of them to cancel programs that were already underway. This success was achieved in part through a twofold promise: that those nations that possess nuclear weapons will gradually give them up, and that these same nations will refuse to share nuclear technology and fuel with countries that refuse to sign the NPT. Two nations, India and Pakistan (and, by implication, Israel), openly defied the NPT. Hence the Bush administration’s deal with India was and is viewed as a major blow to the NPT regime.

Even more serious has been the deal’s impact on the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. At first glance it may seem that the deal should have had no such impact, because the technology and fuel covered by the deal were meant to be used strictly for civilian purposes, specifically for producing electricity. However, as Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in Arms Control Today, India was short on uranium. “If the nuclear deal were to fall through, India would be forced to stop running about half of its indigenously fueled reactors or only operate its [nuclear submarine] fleet at approximately 50 percent capacity.” It would also have to choose between shortchanging its civilian energy program and limiting its production of nuclear weapons. By granting India access to uranium, the deal allows India to divert its indigenously-mined uranium to military applications without detracting fuel from the civilian program. To get uranium to India, the U.S.  pressured members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to “[ease] long-standing restrictions on nuclear trade with India.” Since then, Australia has committed to providing India with uranium, and India has also received uranium from France, Russia, and Kazakhstan and struck supply agreements with Mongolia, Argentina and Namibia.

Following the deal, Pakistan ramped up its production of uranium and plutonium and, it seems, its nuclear weapons arsenal. Given that both nations have already come close to nuclear blows – the two countries nearly engaged in a war over Kashmir, which has been described as “one of the tensest nuclear standoffs between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947” – such a nuclear arms race is particularly troubling.

In an ironic development worthy of Broadway, the deal has not aligned India with the U.S. in its drive to contain China. Until the recent election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, many Indian politicians treated the U.S. with considerable suspicion because they viewed it as Pakistan’s ally and as an imperial power. Modi at first may have seemed to move much closer to the U.S. and to express more concern about Chinese “aggression.” That the joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and India at the end of Obama’s visit included a line about the “importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea” spurred such commentary, as did Indian participation in some military exercises in the area. However, Modi made it abundantly clear that his first, second and third priorities are advancing India’s economic development. These priorities will benefit from working with both the U.S. and China.

It would be best for everyone involved to put the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement on ice. The international community would do best if it encouraged and helped India and Pakistan to settle their differences and accede to the NPT – and if no nation provided either of them with new nuclear technology or fuel until they scale back their military nuclear programs. All this will become acceptable once the U.S. realizes that it can accommodate China as a regional power and that any attempts to contain it are at best premature and – at least in India’s case – likely to fail. India is wisely prioritizing economic development over becoming ensnarled in the U.S.-China rivalry.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and the author of many books, the most recent of which is The New Normal. To read more of his work, follow him on Twitter or Facebook or visit the ICPS website.

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