A delicate balance

Tuesday, 17 January 2006 - 8:12pm IST
The success or failure of the nuclear cooperation deal would have far-reaching implications for mutual trust and perpetuation of mistrust between US and India.

US Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns will be here on Friday to carry forward negotiations on implementing the July 18 agreement, especially the “nuclear deal.” Given the mutual lack of confidence, the complexities of the issues and the profound impact this could have on India-US relations, it was inevitable that there would be reservations on both sides. It also must be accepted as normal that both Washington and New Delhi would seek to maximise their advantages while taking the agreement forward. After all, that is what diplomacy is all about. In a way President Bush’s scheduled visit to India puts a time line on the agreement to reach a tangible level of progress if that visit is to be the success that everyone hopes for.

When we cut through the verbiage generated in the past six months, four issues stand out. Firstly, the issue of separation of civil and military facilities, crucial to progress on the nuclear deal is a vexing issue. Suitable separation was inevitable if India has to be treated as a “normal” country in terms of the existing nuclear order. The basic issue has been defined in the July 18 statement and retaining a focus on it would be important, especially on India’s acceptance of responsibilities similar to those accepted by the US in actions like separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes “in a phased manner.” India has had no ideological objection to IAEA safeguards on civilian facilities especially those constructed with foreign assistance (like Tarapur, or Kudankulam).

The issue then is narrowed to indigenous civilian facilities. As it is, the number of pure civilian nuclear facilities is small and hence should not pose a major problem except that the exact strategy would need time for implementation. There can be little difficulty in identifying purely military-related facilities. Differences, however, may arise on the function of dual-use facilities, and those like fast breeder reactors and research facilities. These would be the critical area of negotiations.

The second issue relates to the concerns being raised in US about the future implications of the agreement on Iran and North Korea on one side and the reactions of non-nuclear weapon states who have abjured nuclear weapons on the other. Members of the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), with (predictably) the exception of China, have welcomed the agreement. All developed non-nuclear weapon countries are under a nuclear umbrella; and it is the possibility that umbrella becoming inadequate in relation to a serious credible threat that might force them to rethink, and not India’s nuclear energy cooperation with them. Concerns of countries like South Africa and Brazil are understandable. But India’s access to nuclear power for human development and expanding its market for their trade surely cannot be a cause of complaint.

Iran and North Korea have reached their present level of nuclearisation from proliferation by China and Pakistan. They have accepted certain international commitments which they need to adhere to. Their future actions are not likely to be guided by India’s nuclear power programme. It is worth noting that the US had persuaded Shah’s Iran to build a dozen nuclear reactors. But it now wants to shut down Iran’s fuel cycle programme even if it is under stringent IAEA full-scope safeguards. The difference lies in the nature of the regime then and now. Similarly, the July 18 agreement is country-specific based on India as a “responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” which according to President Bush, “should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states.” This approach defines the specificity of the agreement.

Thirdly, an argument is floated that international cooperation would allow India to build more bombs. This ignores the reality that Indians don’t wish to make the blunders that the US and Soviet Union made. It has already confirmed that it would work with the US for a Fissile Material (for weapons) Cut-Off Treaty. In fact India and the US had jointly cosponsored the resolution for such a treaty at the UN 12 years ago. The resistance to the treaty is coming from other directions.

Fourth, and most important, the focus of questions and dissent on both sides is about the nature and details of what would be finally implemented. One question that must be asked is: What would be the possible outcomes if the agreement fails to go forward? The nuclear cooperation deal is not a stand-alone agreement and its success or failure would have far-reaching implications for mutual trust—and perpetuation of mistrust, between the US and India, especially when taking the deal forward is in the interests of both countries and the international community.

The writer is an expert on international affairs

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