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The N-deal:What's on India's mind?
February 02, 2006
Just before the Indo-US working group met last month in New Delhi to work out ways of implementing the July 18 Indo-US agreement -- and more specifically to look at the Indian response to the US demand for the declaration of a comprehensive plan for the separation of its civilian and military nuclear facilities by India -- came the news that the US-India Business Council of the US Chamber of Commerce has launched a massive lobbying campaign to try and push the deal through US Congress.
American business interests see a 'bounty of opportunities' for themselves by way of billions of dollars worth of contracts if the deal is implemented successfully. The deal is also being increasingly viewed by Indian Americans as a 'litmus test' of American sincerity in genuinely regarding India as a strategic partner. According to Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India, any failure on the part of the US to implement the deal at this stage would be 'very damaging for US' vital interests, perhaps for decades to come.'
India and the United States signed a landmark agreement on July 18, 2005. This agreement marked the culmination of several rounds of dialogue and represents a paradigm shift in US policy towards India. It is a testimony to the growing trust between the present governments in New Delhi and Washington making way for a more meaningful strategic partnership between the two countries.
The US Administration appears committed to transformation of its relationship with India and professes to help India become a major world power, as a counterweight to the growing power of China. The new approach is based on the recognition of India as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology that can be given the 'same benefits and advantages as other such states' thereby marking an end to the Cold War ideology of containing India.
The joint statement signifies that the global partnership between India and the US has evolved to mature levels and now stands on its own, thereby signaling a possible major departure in US foreign policy from its earlier position of hyphenating its relations with India to that of Pakistan.
However, since the agreement was signed, it has been subject to intense debate and varied interpretation by interested groups in both countries, creating hurdles in its early and successful implementation.
Non-proliferation experts in the US have been especially hawkish in their stance and major differences have come up on three key issues. First, the issue of possible damage to international non-proliferation regimes if India is made an exception to the NPT rules. Second, US insistence upon the separation of India's civil and military nuclear programs that has to be 'credible, defensible and transparent' as a prerequisite for any other steps the US would take, and third, the question of the sequencing of steps that are necessary to implement the agreement, of who does who first.
There is pressure on India to implement its part of the nuclear deal, especially the clause relating to the separation of its civil and military nuclear programs to convince the US Congress of its sincerity to comply with the obligations spelt out in the July agreement.
While India is committed to the complicated task, it needs time to accomplish it without jeopardizing its strategic program. Besides, in the words of the agreement, India's fulfilling of its obligations is reciprocal to Washington's fulfillment of its own undertakings. In the words of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 'reciprocity is the key to the implementation of all the steps enumerated in the Joint Statement…before voluntarily placing our civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards, we will ensure that all restrictions on India have been lifted….'
Though the Government of India has formulated a plan for the separation of its civilian and military nuclear facilities to meet its obligations under the July 18 agreement, we have so far not been able to convince the non-proliferation ayatollahs in Washington of India's impeccable non-proliferation record that cannot be doubted.
India has been a responsible nuclear power and its conduct in the international arena has been above board. Moreover, there are adequate built in safeguards that would take care of any non-proliferation concerns that the US might have and both countries would do well to pursue this agreement within the broader parameters of their respective strategic concerns. For this the agreement must look at the larger global scenario and not just the issue of non-proliferation.
Fortunately the Indian atomic and scientist community is unanimous in its stand that India should not compromise either its technological independence or its research and development program for implementing this deal. Our performance in technology development is exceptional and well recognized internationally.
In view of this, India should argue for a unique position and ask for identification of its civil and military facilities first and go for separation later. Also, our indigenous R&D capability should be protected so that it can go into full thorium cycle utilization that may become necessary due to rising uranium prices.
It is also being felt that an integrated approach should be adopted to build complementing capabilities to make India more energy efficient. For example, one fast breeder reactor can be used for building four heavy water reactors. India also has an impressive performance record in building the prototype FBR where we have achieved a 1000 MW burner from carbide fuel. This avenue could be further explored.
India also has a human resource advantage in the field of nuclear technology expertise. On the other hand the US has not built a new reactor since 1979 and has a gap of at least two generations of expertise of running a nuclear power plant from the start. When 80 percent of the world is using Light Water Reactor technology, India too could go for this option over the HWR, which is not cost effective. Moreover, India has an edge over the US in the sphere of LWR technology and could in fact supply LWR spare parts to the US to increase American dependence upon India.
Future discussions with the US must focus on our positive advantages besides referring to the larger picture. There is increasing interdependence between India and the US in various spheres and these larger interests cannot become victims of one deal. We need to systematically highlight India's genuine need for nuclear energy, emphasize how India's energy need has implications for world energy resources (e.g. our dependence on the Persian Gulf would be minimized), India's ability to meet its energy demands from a clean carbon source would help the larger cause of global environmental sustainability and effectively counter the non-proliferation lobby propaganda that the agreement favors India for little obligations in return.
Complete coverage: The nuclear deal
But without compromising its larger interests, India must not lose sight of the fact that the deal is of considerable strategic importance and we should use it to the best of our advantage. While the deal is not vitally critical for our energy goals in the short term, our long-term objectives and goals will need outside fuel and cooperation. So we need to effectively manage and lobby the passage of this deal in the US Congress and once this hurdle is crossed, he Nuclear Suppliers Group will not be a major stumbling block.
(Dr Harinder Sekhon is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She was formerly with the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi)