Wednesday 16 July 2008

The China Factor in India's Nuclear Debate (UPIASIA)

M.D. Nalapat 

Manipal, India — On July 22, should India's ruling alliance win its trust vote in Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will go ahead and work out an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. His partners for the past 51 months, the two communist parties, will use their 61 members of Parliament to oppose him – despite Singh having kowtowed continuously to them on economic policy, at the cost of economic reform.

Today, the Indian economy is in far worse shape than it was when he took office in 2004, with government spending out of control, a doubling of the tax burden and a raft of restrictions on private initiative and enterprise.

Why, despite Singh having implemented a "communist lite" program as prime minister, are the two communist parties so anxious to defeat his government and thereby block further progress on the nuclear negotiations begun with the George W. Bush- Manmohan Singh statement on U.S.-India nuclear cooperation on July 18, 2005? After all, the two parties are openly pacifist, having opposed the country's nuclear weapons program since its inception in 1985, and the agreements now being discussed would significantly limit India's freedom of action to build an arsenal capable of responding against a nuclear attack.

Contrary to the reports and commentaries now appearing in the Indian media, the change in stand of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India has little to do with nuclear weapons or energy. It is based on what is perceived – despite ritual denials by the United States and India – to be the principal reason behind the July 18, 2005 accord: the integration of India into the defense architecture of the United States, in the manner of Japan.

Such an outcome would require massive transfusions of U.S. equipment and technology to India, something that thus far has been prevented by the dense web of technology sanctions imposed on India after the country's first nuclear blast in 1974. Unless this Gordian knot be cut, the extent of interoperability of the Indian and U.S. defense forces would be severely restricted, in view of differences in equipment.

Although India would like to buy U.S. defense equipment worth at least US$6 billion immediately, rising toward $20 billion in five years, at present U.S. laws restrict the sale to the world's largest democracy of sophisticated weapons systems such as the F-22 fighter aircraft, or undersea platforms and missile systems. Should the nuclear-related barriers be knocked down, it would be a matter of months before the United States were to emerge as a serious competitor to Russia in the sale of defense equipment to India.

It is this that worries China, for Beijing is well aware that a primary motivation behind the warming of ties between New Delhi and Washington is a shared concern over the growth of the People’s Liberation Army. An India that evolves into as close a strategic partner of the United States as Japan presently is would be a nightmare to Chinese military planners – hence the imperative of derailing the nuclear deal.

Should the IAEA and the NSG begin to consider the Indian proposal for a qualified exemption from the restraints barring countries with advanced nuclear technology from trading with it, China would have no option but to go along, lest it antagonize both India and the United States. Small wonder that the CPM and CPI have been vociferous in demanding that India not go before the NSG and the IAEA, and withdrew their support to the Manmohan Singh government on July 7, the day the IAEA was formally approached by India to consider an exemption.

Beijing had apparently calculated that the prime minister would prefer to remain in office rather than risk defeat over the deal. However, Manmohan Singh seems willing to risk all in a throw of the dice that will be decided on July 22, the day of the trust vote.

By opposing the nuclear deal, the two communist parties have landed in the same corner as the largest opposition party, the BJP, which seeks not to scrap but to renegotiate the agreement on terms more favorable to India. The BJP favors a robust triad of nuclear weapon platforms, on land, sea and air, unlike Manmohan Singh, who has long been ambivalent about nuclear weapons and who, as finance minister from 1991-96, cut spending on the nuclear and missile program.

Rather than the defense relationship – which is what excites the BJP – Singh looks at a closer relationship through the prism of economic development. The United States has become the largest trade and technology partner of India, as well as the favored destination for Indian students. Indeed, the multiplying links between the two powers are creating a grassroots momentum for an alliance.

If U.S. laws are amended to facilitate hi-tech collaboration, in the coming decade India and not China may evolve as the location for the manufacture of selected aerospace and other components. Small wonder that China’s leaders are hoping their communist allies in India will be able to prevent more cozy ties between the world's two most populous democracies.

However, even in the unlikely event of a government defeat on July 22, the process of an India-U.S. partnership will only have been delayed, not abandoned. Except for the communist parties – which have continually demonstrated an admirable loyalty toward first the Soviet Union and now China – almost every major political party in India favors a closer relationship with the United States. This is not surprising in probably the only country in the world where George W. Bush still enjoys a 60 percent favorable rating.

-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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