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Rediff.com  » News » India has sold its nuclear soul to the US

India has sold its nuclear soul to the US

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April 27, 2006 19:57 IST

The US waiver bill to give effect to the nuclear deal with India shows just how wide the gap is between what America promises and what it sets out to do.

The July 18, 2005 nuclear deal promised India 'the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the United States'. But in implementing the deal, Washington has maneuvered things in such a way that India's status is to be frozen as a second-class nuclear power, with none of the benefits and advantages that the US enjoys.

The concessions America has wrung out of India only underscore New Delhi's naiveté. India continues to live up to Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana's saying: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Wishful thinking, personalised policy-making and reluctance to learn from the past have made India relive history.

Complete coverage: The Indo-US nuclear tango

Without grasping all the nuances and implications, India rushed into a US-drafted deal centered on the future of its nuclear program. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted in the Lok Sabha August 3, 2005 that the deal's final draft was delivered to him by the Americans after he reached Washington. Said the PM: 'I hope I am not revealing a secret. I think when the final draft came to me from the US side, I made it quite clear to them that I will not sign on any document which did not have the support of the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. It held up our negotiations for about 12 to 15 hours.'

The AEC chairman, who was not part of the PM's delegation, was summoned to the US capital by the first flight. However, the decision to go ahead had already been made, and the nuclear chief's last-minute involvement was merely symbolic. Even the Cabinet was presented a fait accompli by a nominated PM who came to office without winning a single popular election in his career. It is unthinkable that a US president would have entered into a deal with another state so casually had the matter involved the future of America's own nuclear program.

Whenever the Indian leadership has hurriedly entered into an agreement with another state, without involving its policy-making processes in the decision, it has proved to be a blunder. The nuclear deal is a historic blunder in the making. If it takes effect, it will prevent India from ever emerging as a full-fledged nuclear-weapons state, and thus rank as serious a blunder as Jawaharlal Nehru's decision to take the Kashmir issue to the UN and accept a ceasefire, the return of Haji Pir to Pakistan under the Tashkent Declaration, and the repeat surrender of battlefield gains at Simla in 1972 without securing a Kashmir settlement.

Complete coverage: George Bush in India

Such are the capability constraints and onerous, one-sided obligations under the deal that India can forget about emerging as a strategic peer to China.

The deal will reduce to less than one-third the number of Indian facilities yielding fissile material for strategic purposes. The US-dictated closure of the Cirus research reactor will alone deprive the nuclear military program of 30 percent supply of weapons-grade plutonium. That is on top of the 65 percent cut that India will have to bear in the present production of reactor-grade plutonium and tritium once a total of 14 power reactors come under international monitoring in phases.

The Cirus decision hands non-proliferation zealots in the US and elsewhere a cause to celebrate: not only is India tacitly conceding that its 1974 nuclear test was born in sin, but that it is willing to atone for it more than three decades later by shutting down the reactor rather than subjecting it to international inspections. The US had demanded that India either close down the 40-megawatt Cirus, the source of plutonium for the 1974 test, or open it to international monitoring.

Cirus was built with Canadian technical assistance and received US heavy water under two separate 1956 contracts that predated the 1957 establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 1968 text finalisation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Because the concept of 'safeguards' (international inspections) had not yet been devised, India gave no explicit undertaking to abjure nuclear-explosive uses. Indeed, just after Cirus came on line in 1960, Nehru declared: 'We are approaching a stage when it is possible for us … to make atomic weapons.'

Complete coverage: Dr Singh in the US

The shutdown decision not only resurrects a ghost from the past but also mocks various international legal opinions clearing India of any wrongdoing. The US State Department, in a June 2, 1974 assessment to Congress, itself concluded that because heavy water degrades at about 10 percent year and India's Nangal plant had been producing heavy water since 1962, 'it is believed that US-origin heavy water was replaced [in Cirus] from this source'.

The PM's decision to shut the recently refurbished Cirus and also dismember Apsara, Asia's first research reactor, in order to relocate its foreign-origin fuel core compromise national dignity, underlining how the United States is forcing India decades later to make amends for benefiting from facilities belonging to the pre-safeguards era. The chilling message it sends out is that Washington does not forgive and forget.

Similar concessions on national dignity and capability have come from the PM's decision to open to permanent IAEA inspections a number of Indian entities slapped with US sanctions on November 19, 1998 — five research institutions (such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics), three heavy-water plants at Thal-Vaishet, Hazira and Tuticorin, and the PREFRE reprocessing plant at Tarapur.

The decision will put under international monitoring three of the Department of Atomic Energy's seven heavy-water plants, a third of its reprocessing capability, one of its five core research establishments (Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre) and two-thirds of its affiliated institutions. In all, more than 31 Indian nuclear facilities will be placed under perpetual IAEA inspections.

In addition to the quantifiable ceiling on India's deterrent, the deal also seeks to impose a qualitative cap. The Bush administration has cleverly used its waiver bill to drag India through the backdoor into a pact rejected by the US Congress — the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Section 1(d) of the bill aims to turn the present voluntary Indian test moratorium into a legally binding obligation forever, through US legislation. To achieve that objective, the proposed legislation has been designed to keep the Damocles' sword of waiver termination hanging perpetually over India's head.

Evidently, the deal will erode the very strategic autonomy that enabled India to defiantly carry out a series of nuclear-weapons tests in May 1998. In the absence of US leverage over India then, New Delhi was also able to put up with sanctions and indeed demonstrate that sanctions are an ineffectual instrument. But now the deal will create a wrenching Indian dependency on a US-led nuclear cartel and arm America with long-term leverage, effectively foreclosing India's testing option even if China or the US were to end their test moratorium.

An older, comparable US nuclear deal with China is free of such provisions and actually stipulates in its Article 8(2) that even bilateral safeguards 'are not required', with nothing to stop Beijing from diverting US technology to 'all-weather ally' Pakistan. In contrast, the pending bill seeks to impose eight separate good-conduct conditions on India, constricting its negotiating room and diplomacy and making it hostage to the threat of US waiver termination. If India were to violate any of the conditions contained in the legislation, all civilian nuclear cooperation with it will cease, leaving its imported power reactors bereft of fuel.

India is being entangled in a web of capability constraints, in return for dubious benefits — the right to import uneconomical power reactors. The deal's very rationale is fundamentally flawed because generating electricity from imported reactors is dependent on imported fuel makes little economic or strategic sense. Such imports will be a path to energy insecurity and exorbitant costs.

The PM is seeking to replicate in the energy sector the very mistake India has pursued on armaments. Now the world's largest arms importer, India spends nearly $6 billion dollars every year on weapons imports, many of dubious value, while it neglects to build its own armament-production base. Should a poor India now compound that blunder by spending billions more to import overly expensive reactors when it can more profitably invest that money to commercially develop its own energy sources?

As former US President Jimmy Carter said in a recent op-ed, 'India so far has only rudimentary nuclear technology'. According to Carter, while China now possesses 400 nuclear weapons, India has the same number as Pakistan, '40 each'. Not only will the deal ensure that the India-China nuclear gap widens, but it will also enable Pakistan to overtake India on nukes, as it has already done on missiles. It speaks for itself that India still does not have a single Beijing-reachable weapon system in its nuclear arsenal, yet it has entered into a deal that, in the words of Joseph R Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, succeeds in 'limiting the size and sophistication of India's nuclear-weapons program and nuclear power program'.

What US-inspired technology controls against India could not achieve over three decades, the PM has been willing to do — constrict the country's nuclear-deterrent capability — in order to chase dreams. Instead of having a credible deterrent, India could end up with a retarded deterrent.

The Indian government has come a long way since it claimed last July that the US had reversed its decades-old non-proliferation policy and accepted India as a nuclear-weapons state. Remember the claims the PM made in Parliament?  He said on July 29, 2005 that India is to 'acquire the same benefits and advantages' as the other nuclear powers. He even assured: 'Predicated on our obtaining the same benefits and advantages as other nuclear powers is the understanding that we shall undertake the same responsibilities and obligations as such countries, including the United States. Concomitantly, we expect the same rights and benefits'.

To squelch any skepticism, he replied to the debate in the Lok Sabha saying he had secured 'an explicit commitment from the United States that India should get the same benefits of civilian cooperation as an advanced country like the United States enjoys'.

Now, the PM and his aides concede that neither the obligations India is undertaking nor the potential benefits are analogous to those for a nuclear-weapons state. In fact, the foreign secretary has publicly rationalised the different standards the US has applied to India and China in its separate nuclear deals on the specious ground that 'China is a nuclear-weapons state' and India is not.

First, that claim is astonishing because the July 18, 2005 deal is premised on India being treated as a nuclear-weapons state. The foreign secretary had himself boasted in Washington after the deal's signing that India was assuming the same rights and responsibilities as the other nuclear powers, 'no more, no less.' Now the foreign secretary is suggesting that either the deal's central plank is just a charade, or he is learning the hard way that the Americans don't keep their promises.

Two, the foreign secretary's reading of the 1984 US-China nuclear accord is flawed. China was not even an NPT signatory when the US Congress in 1985 passed the waiver bill to permit full nuclear cooperation with Beijing. A nuclear-weapons state under the NPT is a country that has conducted a nuclear test before 1967 and acceded to the treaty. In 1985, China was merely a de facto nuclear-weapons state, as India is today. It joined the NPT only in 1992.

Clearly, India has put itself on a slippery slope, and its second-class status is being institutionalised and endowed with legal content, so that it stays put at that level permanently.

The PM himself provided the first evidence when he announced in March that, contrary to his solemn pledge in Parliament 'never to accept discrimination', he has accepted international inspections on Indian facilities of a type applicable only to non-nuclear states — perpetual and legally immutable. After being the only nuclear power to accept permanent, enveloping inspections, India now stands out as the only nuclear-weapons state whose test moratorium will cease to be voluntary or revocable.

Washington is also positioning itself to haul India into a fissile-material production ban even before a multilateral Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty has been negotiated. This objective could be facilitated either through a Congressionally imposed condition requiring New Delhi to halt all fissile-material production or through what US  Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph has called 'additional non-proliferation results' in 'separate discussions.'

The new bilateral civil nuclear cooperation accord currently under negotiation offers yet another lever of pressure to the US. In any case, once India places orders to import power reactors and locks itself into an external fuel-supply dependency, Washington will have the leverage to cut off further Indian fissile-material production.

Fundamentally, the US aim is to deter the rise of a nuclear India that can threaten US global or regional interests. By playing to India's ego and desire for status, the nuclear deal offers an attractive avenue to the US to get a handle on the Indian nuclear program and influence Indian foreign policy.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs expert, is professor at the Centre for Policy Research. He was one of the authors of the nuclear doctrine submitted to the government for finalisation 

Brahma Chellaney
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