Breaking with nearly three decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy, President George W. Bush has charted a course for the United States to pursue full-scale civil nuclear cooperation with India. But domestic and foreign policymakers who would have to bless the president’s ambitious gambit offered a mixed reaction.
Meeting in Washington July 18, Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to a raft of measures ranging from promoting democracy abroad to increasing bilateral space cooperation. These initiatives followed a June 28 agreement by the two countries’ defense ministers to pursue closer military ties, including expanded “collaboration” on missile defenses, over the next 10 years.
Still, Bush’s commitment to provide India with U.S. nuclear materials and technologies appeared to hold the most significance for what U.S. and Indian officials have hailed as an emerging “global partnership.” India envisions nuclear energy as a solution for meeting the rising energy demands of its booming population and growing economy. Administration officials said it is in the U.S. interest to help India attain its economic and energy goals in the most environmentally safe and efficient manner possible. Yet, other commentators portrayed the move as motivated by a U.S. desire to offset China’s growing power.
India’s quest for nuclear energy has been hampered by its tandem development of nuclear weapons. Following New Delhi’s 1974 misuse of civilian nuclear materials to explode a nuclear device, the United States effectively blacklisted India as a recipient of U.S. nuclear trade and pressured other countries to do the same. India engendered further international ill will when it conducted several nuclear weapons tests in May 1998. (See ACT, May 1998.)
India’s tests, matched by its rival Pakistan, run counter to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which only recognizes China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States as lawful possessors of nuclear arms, and to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear tests. Although India had not signed either agreement and still has not, it was showered with worldwide condemnation for flouting these widely supported treaties.
Bush’s deal with Singh would essentially wipe the slate clean for India and offer it benefits historically reserved for countries forswearing nuclear weapons. The NPT grants states that forgo nuclear weapons access to nuclear trade for peaceful purposes. India, Israel, and Pakistan are the only countries never to have signed the NPT, and all have developed nuclear arms.
U.S. officials insisted Bush’s proposal did not confer legitimacy on India’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told reporters July 19, “By taking this decision, we are not recognizing India as a nuclear-weapon state.”
At the same time, Indian officials stressed the agreement would not impact their nuclear weapons programs or stockpile. “There is nothing in this Joint Statement that amounts to limiting or inhibiting our strategic nuclear weapons program,” Singh assured the Indian parliament July 29.
In the two leaders’ joint statement, Bush pledged to “work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India.” The president said he would ask Congress to “adjust U.S. laws and policies” and other countries to “adjust international regimes” to permit India the nuclear goods it wants. Bush also said he would explore the inclusion of India in two advanced multilateral nuclear research projects from which it previously had been excluded.
In exchange, Singh said Indian nuclear facilities would be divided into military or civilian sites and that civilian facilities would be opened to international oversight. This arrangement would be codified in an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such agreements grant the IAEA greater authority to verify that countries do not divert nuclear materials and technologies supposedly intended for peaceful purposes toward making nuclear weapons. New Delhi says India, like the five recognized nuclear-weapon states, would reserve flexibility under its still-to-be-negotiated additional protocol to switch a specific facility’s designation. IAEA spokesperson Mark Gwozdecky told Arms Control Today Aug. 17 that India had not yet approached the agency about negotiating an additional protocol.
Singh also reaffirmed Indian policies to uphold a nuclear testing moratorium, maintain strict export controls, and support negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) to end the production of key nuclear materials for building nuclear weapons. Although the five nuclear-weapon states are all understood to have ceased production of fissile material for weapons purposes, India maintains it will not follow suit until a treaty is completed.
FMCT negotiations have been stalled for several years. The latest obstacle is Washington’s insistence since last summer that the accord not include verification provisions, which is a position India does not share. (See ACT, September 2004.)
Burns heralded India’s commitments. “Surely, we are better off, all of us who are concerned with nonproliferation, seeing those commitments in black and white,” he said.
Despite its acquisition of nuclear weapons outside the NPT, Burns further described India as having an “exceptional” nonproliferation record. Yet, the Bush administration has imposed proliferation sanctions six times on five different Indian entities, and roughly a dozen Indian entities remain on the Department of Commerce’s Entity List. This list identifies foreign entities that the U.S. government has determined are proliferation risks. The administration stripped six Indian entities from the list Aug. 30, but India has called for all of its entities to be removed.
Who Goes First?
Both sides emphasized the reciprocal nature of their arrangement. “I would like to make it very clear that our commitments would be conditional upon, and reciprocal to, the [United States] fulfilling its side of this understanding,” Singh stated in his parliament address. Similarly, Burns said that U.S. industry would be free to pursue nuclear trade with India after New Delhi “has taken [its] steps.”
No plan has been finalized for implementing the mutual commitments. Singh made clear that the United States should act first. “Before voluntarily placing our civilian facilities under IAEA [supervision], we will ensure that all restrictions on India have been lifted,” the prime minister stated.
Burns said the administration would present Congress with a “specific program” in the next few months. Congressional sources told Arms Control Today in August that the administration had yet to forward a plan.
Bush and Singh agreed to establish a working group to figure out how the two sides will fulfill the arrangement. The two leaders will then review progress when Bush travels to India early next year.
The 1954 Atomic Energy Act, as amended by the 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act, contains several provisions that effectively outlaw U.S. nuclear trade with India.
First and foremost, it requires that a nuclear cooperation agreement be signed with any foreign government looking to conduct nuclear trade with the United States. Among the act’s criteria of eligibility for such agreements is that a non-nuclear-weapon state have “full-scope” IAEA safeguards, meaning that all its nuclear facilities are subject to IAEA oversight. India, which is considered a non-nuclear-weapon state because it is not one of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, does not have full-scope safeguards and says it will not adopt them. Therefore, Congress would either need to change the criteria or pass a joint resolution exempting the Indian deal.
The Atomic Energy Act would also need to be modified or waived in other ways. Notwithstanding the terms of any nuclear cooperation agreement, an export license is needed for individual nuclear transfers. These export licenses require non-nuclear-weapon states to have full-scope safeguards, which India does not. Another section prohibits nuclear trade with any non-nuclear-weapon state that exploded a nuclear device after March 1978, which India has done.
Congressional support for nuclear cooperation with India is not guaranteed. Shortly after the nuclear cooperation plan was announced, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House approved a last-minute addition to an omnibus energy bill to block nuclear trade with India, but Senate members rejected it. Still, congressional sources from both parties and both chambers told Arms Control Today that the administration will face a lot of skepticism and questions, such as how India will guarantee that no U.S.-origin nuclear items are used to make weapons.
Several foreign governments also can be expected to press the administration to explain itself. In 1992 the United States led the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in adopting guidelines proscribing nuclear trade with non-nuclear-weapon states lacking full-scope safeguards. The group’s members, now numbering 45 countries, seek to coordinate their nuclear export rules to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Along with most other NSG governments, the Bush administration had repeatedly condemned Russia’s deliveries of nuclear fuel to India’s Tarapur power reactors as a violation of the 1992 rule. Then-Department of State deputy spokesperson Philip Reeker declared Feb. 16, 2001, “We join other nuclear suppliers in calling on Russia to cancel this supply arrangement and live up to its nonproliferation obligations.” Under continuing pressure, Russia suspended its fuel deliveries in 2004.
But under its July 18 arrangement, the Bush administration says that its possible future nuclear cooperation would include the “expeditious consideration of fuel supplies for safeguarded nuclear reactors at Tarapur.” The administration has implied that it will seek to persuade its fellow nuclear suppliers to revisit the 1992 restriction, at least with respect to India. How receptive they will be remains uncertain.
The United Kingdom, an NSG member, announced Aug. 10 that it would now consider previously barred exports to India of dual-use goods, items with both civilian and military applications. However, London ruled out relaxing its policy of denying nuclear materials and technologies to New Delhi.
The U.S.-Indian cooperation agreement surprised many countries, as well as some U.S. officials responsible for nuclear proliferation matters. To be sure, the July 18 deal is rooted in a January 2004 U.S.-Indian framework agreement, known as the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, which stated the two countries would increase their nuclear cooperation. But few observers thought a final agreement would be reached so quickly or be so extensive.
Burns explained that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested during a March visit to India that the two countries “vault ahead.” By all indications, the administration kept the accelerated process very quiet. Burns noted, “[T]here were so few people involved in these negotiations and they [were] at such a high level that American industry never figured in the negotiations themselves.”
Close U.S. allies were also out of the loop. The British, French, German, and Japanese governments were all called the day after the agreement’s conclusion. That same day, Rice also spoke with IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, who welcomed the U.S.-Indian move in a statement one day later by commending the “out of the box thinking.”
Not all commentators reacted favorably. Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott wrote on the YaleGlobal website that the agreement was “not good news” for nuclear nonproliferation. Talbott, who served in the Clinton administration and oversaw U.S. nuclear diplomacy with India and Pakistan, further suggested the deal reflected “an important though officially muted—sometimes denied—anti-Chinese subtext.”
State Department deputy spokesperson Adam Ereli had earlier rejected the implication that U.S. efforts to forge closer ties with India stemmed from a desire to court an Asian power to balance China. “So I would not say…we signed this [deal] with India…based on what we want to accomplish or how we want to influence China,” Ereli said July 19.
Nevertheless, as Bush’s foreign policy adviser during his 2000 presidential campaign, Rice wrote in Foreign Affairs that, when dealing with China, which she deemed a “strategic competitor,” Washington needed to “pay closer attention” to India. She added, “ India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too.”
India’s Other Neighbor: Pakistan
Administration officials also disassociated the July 18 agreement from having anything to do with Pakistan. “Both countries are important, and there are issues where U.S. policy intersects, and there are issues where we can have individual relationships…and certainly in the case of civil nuclear cooperation, we’re going to have individual relationships,” Burns said.
But Pakistan wants equal treatment. Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Naeem Khan was widely quoted July 25 as saying Islamabad wanted expanded nuclear cooperation with the United States and other NSG members.
Still, the U.S.-Indian arrangement did not appear to negatively affect relations between India and Pakistan. In early August, they agreed to establish in September a hotline between their foreign ministries to help mitigate any nuclear tensions and completed an agreement nearly a year in the making to give each other advance notification of their ballistic missile flight tests.
On Aug. 11, Pakistan conducted its first-ever test of a ground-launched cruise missile, the Babur, without notifying India. Islamabad explained that the two sides’ recent agreement, at New Delhi’s insistence, did not apply to cruise missiles. The new Pakistani missile, according to a Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement, has a range of 500 kilometers. Unlike ballistic missiles, cruise missiles are powered for their entire flight and can be highly maneuverable, making them difficult to defend against.