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Home > News > Columnists > K Subrahmanyam

Why the nuclear deal is important

December 07, 2006

When India conducted its first nuclear test in May 1974, at the height of the Cold War, the United States was quick to impose a technology apartheid on us.

It started with the nuclear non-proliferation legislation and the setting up of the London Suppliers Club. Then came the Australia Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar agreement. These interlocking arrangements brought together all US allies who agreed to embargo the export of most dual use items to countries like India.

The London suppliers group expanded into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, NSG, and after the Cold War some of the former Warsaw Pact countries -- and Russia itself -- joined the NSG and other arms control arrangements which were part of the technology apartheid against India. The latest to join the NSG was China.

It must be clearly understood that China and Russia have accepted the US leadership in enforcing the technology apartheid. Which is why three or four years ago, the two nations which once supplied enriched uranium for the Tarapur nuclear plant expressed their inability to do so any longer.

It soon became quite obvious that US had to be tackled as the central factor if India was to free itself from this apartheid. So special attention had to be paid to US. The Vajpayee government began the process and made some modest progress.

But in 2005, during President George W Bush's second term, there was a radical change in US policy. In their own interests, the Americans decided to help India in its efforts to move towards becoming a major world class power in the 21st century. This in turn necessitated dismantling the technology apartheid imposed on India.

The US calculations were that in the new balance of power system, it needed India as an economic partner, as a source of a cost effective labour force, a brain power reservoir and as an expanding new market (the Chinese market is likely to reach saturation point soon).

Being a democracy, an English speaking country with a growing Indo-American population in the US contributing to US R&D and managerial capabilities were additional points in favour.

Enlisting India as a strategic partner was an imperative for the US to sustain itself as a pre-eminent economic and technological power on the basis of its superior innovativeness and competitiveness.

These calculations led to the joint statement of July 18, 2005.

The strategic partnership did not hurt Indian interests. The Indian leadership had realised that even China and Russia would not challenge the technology apartheid unless India was able to enhance its relationship with the United States.

The India-US nuclear tango

Unfortunately this basic fact has been overlooked by many Cold Warriors in this country, who fail to take note of the fact that China is not independent of US technology dominance and will not act against any US imposed technology denial regime.

In order to free India from technology apartheid, the US had to amend its nuclear cooperation legislation. The US by itself cannot amend the Non-Proliferation Treaty to include India as a nuclear weapon State.

It was considered easier for US to persuade 45 members of the NSG to accept India in the suppliers club than to convince 188 members of the NPT that India should be included in the NPT as a nuclear weapons State.

As we have seen over the last 17 months, convincing the two chambers of US Congress of the need to amend the US legislation to make an exception for India was not an easy task.

The entire non-proliferation theological lobby, conditioned over the last 30 years, was ranged against it. It is to the credit of President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Congressional leaders of both parties that they were able to obtain such massive majorities to support this.

But this is only an enabling legislation which authorises the US administration to deal with India. Understandably, the legislatures have imposed certain conditions on US extending nuclear cooperation to India. This legislation is entirely an American affair.

The next step is for India and US to conclude a specific agreement (called 1-2-3 agreement) for bilateral nuclear cooperation, which alone will be binding on India.

But the Congessional legislation lifting the foundation stone of technology apartheid is a prerequisite for the 45 member NSG to act. Other members of the NSG do not have legislation to support their technology denial stand. They all do it with administrative declarations. Since the US has the legislation, they all look to US to amend the legislation to exempt India before they go along.

It is in that respect this legislation is crucial to India's interest.

'The Indians asked for the nuclear deal'

The clauses in the 1-2-3 agreement will be binding on India only if it buys nuclear reactors and material from the US, and not if it gets NSG clearance to buy them from France and Russia, for instance.

This is the strategy China has adopted. France and Russia supply reactors and technology on the basis of NSG guidelines and under IAEA safeguards, and do not impose the kind of conditions the US Congress tends to impose.

What is at stake therefore is the total removal of technology apartheid, and for this, the US legislation exempting India is an absolute prerequisite. Any unacceptable clauses in the legislation does not bind India and therefore it is in India's interest to allow the legislation to go through after making the maximum effort to get the objectionable clauses deleted.

There is nothing to be gained in not moving ahead with the conclusion of 1-2-3 agreement, India-specific IAEA safeguards and the modification of NSG guidelines to permit nuclear transactions with India.

China is a nuclear weapons State under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet in the agreement to sell uranium to China, Australia has insisted that it will participate in the formulation of a civil-military nuclear reactor separation plan and impose safeguards over and above those prescribed by the IAEA.

The pragmatic Chinese have accepted these conditions to get assured uranium supply from Australia and to expand their nuclear power industry.

India should copy China in its pragmatism.

The fear and paranoia in some sections of the Indian political and technological elite remind us of their attitude when India started its economic liberalisation. They talked of a neo-East India Company coming back to take over India. They tried to frighten us saying our shops would be flooded with imported goods and that our workers would lose their jobs.

Why the nuclear deal is (still) a bad idea

In reality, thanks to economic liberalisation, in seven years we built up an adequate foreign exchange balance to enable us to conduct the nuclear tests and survive the economic sanctions.

Dr Manmohan Singh should display the same courage as prime minister as he displayed as finance minister. He went ahead with economic reforms in spite of opposition from risk averse cautious conservatives, and he was vindicated.

Similarly he has to go ahead with efforts to free India from technology apartheid in spite of fears that are bound to be expressed in certain influential quarters.




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Number of User Comments: 6




Sub: Well balanced and thought out article

Well written and presented article. Agree wholeheartedly.


Posted by PJ





Sub: Economic need and Soldier's pride

It seems from the tone and tenor of the language used, the clauses enacted and one way communication of the interlocutors that N-deal clearly distrusts ...


Posted by N J Ramesh





Sub: kya India bik gaya hain?

The assumption that only cold warriors oppose the N-deal is incorrect. Any decent Indian, who believes in rule of law, who believes in USA, in ...


Posted by N J Ramesh





Sub: kya India bik gaya hain?

The assumption that only cold warriors oppose the N-deal is incorrect. Any decent Indian, who believes in rule of law, who believes in USA, in ...


Posted by N J Ramesh





Sub: The Nuclear Deal is Important

I Fully agree with Abhishek's comments. While we need to safeguard our National Interests, we also have to be pragmatic to accept a few minor ...


Posted by Harsh




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