MANIPAL, India — A smiling U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on July 18, 2005, that a U.S.-India agreement would be concluded that would regularize nuclear trade between the two countries, and consequently, the rest of the world.
Since the first Indian nuclear test in 1974, India has been the primary target of a comprehensive set of sanctions designed to prevent any external help to the Indian program. Along the way, a large number of hi-tech items -- such as supercomputers -- were made out of bounds to India, which nevertheless persisted with its program, detonating six nuclear devices in 1998 and moving ahead toward development and deployment of a "triad" of nuclear weapons systems that would ensure delivery from the land, air and sea.
Unlike Pakistan, China and Russia, India has not transferred nuclear or missile technology across its frontiers -- hoping to be rewarded for such good behavior by cooption into the major league of nuclear weapons states (NWS). It seemed that on July 18, 2005, the day had finally arrived -- early reports of the U.S.-India understanding were unanimous in stating that the Bush administration had finally given up on containment, and had accepted -- de facto if not yet de jure -- that India was an NWS, and that it therefore made sense for the five "declared" weapons powers to bring it into the fold before New Delhi decided to act the outsider, after being treated as one since 1974.
Influential voices within the country's nuclear and security establishment had been calling for nuclear cooperation with other countries that felt shortchanged by an international architecture that had changed hardly at all since World War II. Among the prospective partners would be Vietnam and Venezuela, who would see little attraction in remaining within the confines of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were India to offer cooperation in energy.
After decades of effort, India has mastered the technology of generating up to 500 megawatts of power through homemade reactors, and is on track to boost this scale to 1000 megawatts within two years. More worrisome for the privileged group of NWS (Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States), India has been developing a thorium-based alternative to uranium fuel that would enable the country to leapfrog over the shortages caused by international sanctions.
As Finance Minister from 1992-96, Manmohan Singh was a visceral opponent of the nuclear and space program, seeing both as luxuries for a country where hundreds of millions were living below the poverty line. As prime minister, he has retained a lukewarm attitude toward the future benefits of an indigenous nuclear and space program, and sees it as a card that can be substantially given away in the interest of closer cooperation with the United States. The problem is that such cooperation has little to do with an incumbent administration, being motivated by market factors.
During the previous five years, there has been an exponential increase in India-U.S. business ties, mainly in the fields of services and software. This growth took place despite frequent alarums from the U.S. State Department about South Asia being the "most dangerous corner of the world." In 2002, this ersatz hysteria was carried to the point where 67,000 U.S. citizens were hastily evacuated from India on the excuse that a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan was imminent -- the presumed "defusing" of which helped several Washington officials beef up their curriculum vitaes. The reality was that such a risk was near zero, or about as much as the chance of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia.
That Indians and Pakistanis may respond the same way Americans would to the prospect of a nuclear holocaust -- by avoiding it -- seems to be difficult for "experts" within the U.S. establishment to accept, trained as they are to separate humanity into Western and non-Western segments, with the latter regarded as much less "responsible" than the former. India's embrace of democracy at a time when almost all U.S. allies in Asia were authoritarian, its non-proliferation record and its professional military were not seen as sufficient to regard New Delhi as having the maturity needed to be trusted with strategic weapons.
The negotiations for signing the India-U.S. Nuclear Agreement have made it clear that Washington sees the proposed treaty as a way of rolling back the indigenous Indian program and placing it firmly within the constraints of full-scope international inspections. Once the treaty is signed, India would become dependent on external technology and fuel for its program, with the explicit threat of total withdrawal of cooperation should New Delhi breach any of a series of benchmarks, including "too close" ties to Iran or detonating a nuclear explosive.
In effect, this would make the country's energy sector hostage to international -- chiefly U.S. -- pressure to a degree that the blanket sanctions in place since 1974 have failed to do. India would be denied the right to reprocess spent fuel, or to conduct in secrecy research towards enhanced techniques. Its scientific establishment would become the focus of an inspections regime that would replicate that which was set up in Iraq during the 1990s. Small wonder that few within the Indian scientific establishment or the political spectrum share peacenik Singh's enthusiasm for his attempted deal with Bush.
Far from improving India-U.S. ties, the kicking into effect of the numerous restrictive provisions of the nuclear deal would lead to a firestorm of protest from the politically connected scientific community in India, which could have a deadly effect on other aspects of India-U.S. cooperation, such as the increasing volume of joint military activities. Policymakers in India are First Worlders in a Third World country, and therefore sensitive to perceived slights and double standards.
If Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush are truly serious about building a 21st century partnership between their two countries, all they need to do is get out of the way of the business people, academics, cultural figures and other social groups that are ignoring the Babel-like din of the U.S. State Department about India and forging a multitude of ties that have already made close cooperation between the two countries irreversible. A nuclear agreement that opens up all of post-colonial India's psychological wounds (most self-inflicted) concerning its encounter with the West would be exactly what the poisoner ordered to reverse a process of (privately driven) partnership that is in the best interests of both powers.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)