Pakistan: Lessons from the India-US Nuclear Deal

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Pakistan: Lessons from the India-US Nuclear Deal

The road to civilian nuclear cooperation begins in Islamabad.

Pakistan: Lessons from the India-US Nuclear Deal
Credit: REUTERS/Mian Khursheed/Files

During the seventh round of the U.S.-Pakistan Security, Strategic Stability, and Nonproliferation (SSS&NP) working group earlier this month, Pakistan again demanded an India-style civil nuclear agreement under the auspices of the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue. As previously, the idea received a noncommittal response from Washington.

Islamabad has been critical of the India-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, signed in 2008, under which nuclear sanctions against New Delhi were lifted and India was allowed to have civilian nuclear trade along with its nuclear weapons program. The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal recognized the nuclear status of India, while continuing to exclude Pakistan from the nuclear club. U.S. officials argued that India’s case was unique and Pakistan does not qualify for similar treatment. The questions arise: What were the factors that pushed the United States to work so hard to lift nuclear sanctions, both at the domestic and international levels, against India and what lessons Pakistan should learn to qualify for the same consideration?

It has been argued that the most important factor behind the deal with India was the pursuit of a strategic objective regarding China: The Bush Administration wanted to boost India’s military and economic capability to counter balance China’s rising power. A key architect of Bush’s India policy and U.S. ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill noted that without this China factor at the fore “the Bush Administration would not have negotiated the civil nuclear agreement and the Congress would not have approved it.” Pakistan is equally strategically important for the United States in this regard. Islamabad continues to be a frontline state in global war on terror and its cooperation is extremely important for stability and peace in Afghanistan.

Economic factors also played an important role in offering this nuclear deal to India. India’s big nuclear market provided an opportunity for the nuclear suppliers to lift nuclear sanctions against New Delhi. Strobe Talbott wrote in his book Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb (2004) that Russia France, Germany, United Kingdom, and Italy wanted to lift these sanctions against India and had been proposing the idea. This proposition was dismissed outright by the Clinton Administration, which refused to compromise its nonproliferation agenda. In 1998, Russia supplied two reactors to India in violation of NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) guidelines. The issue was raised again in 2001 when Russia supplied low enriched uranium fuel to India’s nuclear power station at Tarapur. When the NSG criticized it, the Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Eugeny Adamov threatened a Russian withdrawal from the NSG if its nuclear trade was hindered.

Russia, France, and Britain vigorously supported the NSG waiver to exempt India from the full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards despite India’s nuclear status outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Soon after the NSG approval these countries signed their own nuclear agreements with New Delhi.  Even countries like Canada and Australia, strong supporters of the NPT, voted in favor of the NSG waiver for India and concluded nuclear agreement with New Delhi to take advantage of its big nuclear market. This shows a strong economic motive by these states which wanted to have their profit share in Indian market, made possible by the NSG waiver. Now these countries are supporting India for NSG membership and for that the NSG again has to exempt India from its NPT condition.

The poor state of Pakistan’s economy doesn’t provide such incentives for nuclear suppliers. The lack of internal unity, provincial rivalry, sectarian violence, terrorism, unequal distribution of wealth and political instability have constrained the desired stability and prosperity of Pakistan. Economic growth creates a soft image at the international level. Despite many internal problems – corruption, poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, and insurgencies – India’s economic growth has created a soft image in a way that Pakistan has been unable to match. India has a democracy since its independence, but this factor got attention only after its fast economic growth.

India is hailed as the world’s largest democracy and a responsible nuclear power. New Delhi has always been proud of its impeccable record of not transferring its nuclear technology. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been trying to mend its image after revelations of A. Q. Khan’s involvement in the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Following this, Pakistan took a number of measures to strengthen the security of its nuclear weapons program. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based nonprofit organization, ranked Pakistan “most improved” in terms of its nuclear security. This factor is appreciated by the United States, but it still did not result in favorable conditions for nuclear cooperation in absence of economic growth.

Following the India-U.S. nuclear deal, Pakistan accelerated efforts to take measures, both internally and externally, to catch up to India’s nuclear capacity. Externally, apart from demanding a similar nuclear deal, Pakistan signed a nuclear agreement with China in which the latter committed to provide two nuclear reactors in apparent violation of NSG guidelines. After granting India a waiver, the NSG did not condemn the Chinese deal with Pakistan. The lack of generality in the India NSG waiver has encouraged China and Pakistan to seek a deal outside the NSG, but this approach has limitations and cannot be sought on a regular basis.  Pakistan has also repeatedly blocked consensus to start negotiations on the FMCT (Fissile Material Control Treaty) due to its security concerns, despite pressure from major powers. It fears that India would be able to increase its fissile material stockpiles as a result of the NSG waiver. However, early conclusion of an FMCT is in fact in the interest of Pakistan, as it would freeze the increasing asymmetry at a point where Pakistan already has enough nuclear weapons for its deterrence against India.

Internally, Pakistan is stepping up production of enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons and is considered to have the fastest-growing nuclear weapons program in the world. Pakistan also opted for “Full Spectrum Deterrence,” which provides strategic and tactical tools to confront emerging threats such as new offensive doctrines like India’s Cold Start doctrine.

Even given India’s access to the global nuclear market, Pakistan is still estimated to have more nuclear weapons (100-120) than India (90-110). Pakistan’s over-reliance on nuclear weapons – increasing the production of fissile material, developing tactical nuclear weapons, and blockading FMCT negotiations – to compete with India causes concerns in the international community. Strategic stability is not achieved by developing a large number of nuclear weapons; it relies on normalizing relations and improving trade relations to minimize the incentive to initiate a conflict.

Despite the fact that the India-U.S. nuclear deal was meant to counterbalance China, Beijing did not adopt provocative measures but opted to improve relations with India in order to counter Washington’s growing influence in South Asia. China is also ready to take advantage of India’s NSG exemption by benefiting from the Indian nuclear market. During the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014, India and China agreed to begin talks on civil nuclear energy. India also has a major interest in ensuring that the changing contours of the Indo-U.S. partnership do not disrupt the balance of power between India and China. Pakistan should learn from the way China is engaging the United States and how India is engaging China, by focusing on economic growth and increasing trade relations in order to minimize the political temperature. This responsible behavior would create a soft image of Pakistan at the international level. By following this path, Islamabad would not have to insist on civilian nuclear cooperation; the international community itself would offer that deal to Pakistan.

Saira Bano is visiting fellow at The Stimson Center, Washington D.C.