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Making the US-India nuclear deal acceptable

November 15, 2006 16:50 IST

The world community can stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons only if their ownership is based on countries' global responsibilities, which are related to the size of their economies, their populations and their geographic locations. The United States, India, and China meet these criteria. The US, China, and India will likely remain the three largest countries and the three largest economies for the rest of this century. The US is the most powerful country in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans while India is the most powerful country in the Indian Ocean.

The simplest way to address the criticism of the US-India nuclear deal would be to ask India to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty under the same terms as Britain, China, France, Russia – and the United States, and India will, in all likelihood, sign it. The ownership of nuclear weapons by Britain, France, and Russia is the result of the power and responsibilities they accumulated when they controlled larger territories and their economies made up much larger shares of the world Gross Domestic Product. Their responsibilities have diminished, and they support the US-India agreement.

Had the world community defined the criteria for legitimacy to possess nuclear weapons, made it the basis of the nonproliferation treaty, and recognized India as a nuclear power in 1974 when it conducted its first underground test of a nuclear device, it would have found it easier to deal with Iran and North Korea now. The US-India agreement is a major step in this direction. Inviting India to sign the NPT as a nuclear power would make it easier for the world community to deal with Iran and North Korea because the community would then have a formal criterion of legitimacy. It would also help in keeping the NPT alive because with the positions of Iran and North Korea, the NPT could become totally irrelevant.

Long-term benefits of the US-India partnership

First, a long-term US-India partnership would encourage India to assume a greater role in the security of the Indian Ocean, which includes major links in global supply chains and almost all of the major trouble spots in the world. If India's role could save the US $20 billion a year in its defense budget, the US's total savings would be one trillion dollars over the next 50 years. The long-term US-India partnership would also allow both countries to benefit from collaboration in nuclear research since their strengths lie in different areas.

Second, it would help in shaping a new global order. The world was split into the West and the rest in the mid-1700s, when various European countries began military occupation of Asia and Africa. This dichotomy has been at the core of many conflicts in the world, but it is fast disappearing. The agreement between India and the US formalises this change and lays the foundation of a new global order.

Third, if India gets a major access to nuclear energy, it will have beneficial effects on the world economy, democratization of China, and weakening of the forces of terrorism. 

  • India's economy is service oriented because of the shortage of energy, and China's economy is manufacturing oriented. Access to nuclear power would help India to diversify its economy by expanding manufacturing, and the resulting competition with China would force China to diversify its manufacturing-oriented economy. The competition between India and China in both manufacturing and services would spur innovation and accelerate worldwide economic growth. 
  • The diversification of both China's and India's economies would insulate the world economy against a major downturn that could result from political upheaval in China. 
  • By diversifying its economy, China would accelerate its transition to democracy. 
  • A diversified Indian economy would foster economic development in the countries bordering on the Indian Ocean, promote democracy in the area, and weaken the forces of terrorism.
  • The US-India deal would create a market for US nuclear power plants, spur innovations in their designs since the US has not built a new plant in more than 30 years, and slow the increase in oil prices and environmental pollution.

On December 31, 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru, then India's prime minister, told the press that although India was ahead of China in nuclear science it would not conduct nuclear tests even if China did. It was also Nehru who in 1954 became the first world leader to propose a ban on nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

At that time, India had the capability to pursue development of nuclear weapons and could test one in the atmosphere before the 1968 'deadline' for signing the NPT as a nuclear power. Yet, India enthusiastically joined the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union to sign the 1963 treaty that banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in space, and under water whereas France continued atmospheric tests until 1974 and China, until 1980.

India, because of its opposition to the atmospheric testing, missed the signing of the NPT as nuclear power by a narrow margin of time. In July 1970, Vikram Sarabhai, who then deal with all matters nuclear, announced that India was 'capable of conducting underground nuclear tests' and was 'internationally entitled to do so as a nonparty to the NPT.'

While all NPT nuclear powers tested their first series of bombs in the atmosphere, leading to severe ill-effects on health and environment, in 1974 India became the first country to conduct its first nuclear test underground. The US then banned the export of certain technologies to India. The lifting of that ban is a part of the current US-India nuclear deal and the focus of the current deliberations by the US Congress.

An opportunity for Congress

Clearly, the US-India nuclear deal, as agreed to between the US administration and the Indian government, would bring a wide range of benefits to the United States. Senator Lugar recently observed that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee added in its bill on the US-India deal several provisions on the advice from the non-proliferation 'experts.' What the 'experts' have articulated are their viewpoints and not any special expertise because they have not provided any information that we laypersons did not know.

It is clear that some provisions in the bill, driven by the viewpoints of the 'experts,' have the potential of killing the deal. Although all of the experts' concerns relate to India not being a signatory to the NPT, these 'experts' apparently did not consider the possibility of India signing the NPT as a nuclear power.

Congress now has an opportunity to address almost all of the concerns expressed in India and the US with a simple approach: Urge the administration to take an initiative to have India sign the NPT as a nuclear power and state in the bill that the added provisions – and other provisions in the existing US laws that do not apply to the NPT nuclear powers – would not apply to India as long as India remained willing to sign or has signed the NPT as a nuclear power.

Kalyan Singhal is a professor at the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore

Kalyan Singhal