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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 40

Step Back from the Precipice of the Self-injurious N-Deal

Tuesday 23 September 2008, by Brahma Chellaney


Whatever happened to India’s vaunted “credible minimal deterrent”? Despite having Asia’s oldest nuclear programme, India still does not have a minimal, let alone credible, deterrent as defined by its own nuclear doctrine. Yet to secure a dubious civil nuclear deal, India is allowing the various good-faith declarations it made on July 18, 2005, to be turned into binding, enforceable international commitments. If this deal takes effect, India can forget about being a strategic peer of China. It will become another Pakistan to US policy, locked in a dependent relationship, with its nuclear crown jewels effectively mortgaged.

The idea to build energy “security” by importing high-priced, foreign fuel-dependent power reactors is an absurdity—a money-spending boondoggle that is sure to rake up kickbacks for some but leave India insecure and buffeted by outside pressures. The deal, in effect, will ensnare India in a wide non-proliferation net and undermine its autonomy to build a full-fledged deterrent. India has already paid a heavy international price for its nuclear programme, but its deterrent capabilities remain nascent, thanks to the tentativeness and pusillanimity of those who have led it over the years. But just when it seemed ready to take off, it is being fastened to oppressive non-proliferation constraints whose sum effect would be, as US Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joseph Biden said earlier, “to limit the size and sophistication of India’s nuclear-weapons programme”.

With India wedged in a unique nuclear crescent stretching from Israel to China, a deal effectively capping its deterrent capability at the present rudimentary level will be a grievous blunder. Yet, as symbolised by his refusal to celebrate the tenth anniversary four months ago of India going overtly nuclear, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remains fixated on deal-making, instead of deterrent-building. Dr Singh’s polarising single-mindedness on the ballyhooed deal has injected bitter divisiveness into an issue that centres on the future of India’s nuclear programme. Had Dr Singh done what he had repeatedly promised—“build the broadest possible national consensus”—India would not have undercut its negotiating leverage. By turning it into a matter of personal prestige and desperately wanting a successful outcome, he has allowed the deal to attract, however inadvertently, additional conditions at every stage of its evolution.

Certain give-and-take is inevitable in any deal. But this deal has picked up such onerous conditions that it now threatens to cast a political albatross around India’s neck. To help build a personal legacy, the deal-making threatens to saddle the country with a damaging legacy. This is execrable, given the unparalleled manner India’s internal and external security has come under serious strain on Dr Singh’s watch. At a time of growing insecurity, India can ill-afford to narrow its future strategic options. Yet, aided by a hundred spin doctors and an impressionable national media, the deal has been parlayed in large-than-life dimensions, with its benefits liberally embellished and its fetters cloaked.

INDIA’S constantly shifting goalpost can be seen from the manner it went from demanding a “clean and unconditional” exemption from the Nuclear Supliers Group to seeking just a “clean” waiver, and then agreed with the US to one text revision after another in Vienna, rendering the NSG process outcome pretty messy. That is exactly the path it treaded earlier to secure the US legislative waiver (in the form of the conditions-laden Hyde Act), the bilateral 123 Agreement and the safeguards accord. The blunt fact is that the NSG waiver, however cleverly worded, cannot allow India to escape from the US-set conditions by turning to other suppliers, as the publicly released correspondence between the Bush Administration and the House Foreign Affairs Committee brings out starkly.

Any material violation of the eclectic non-proliferation commitments India is assuming will trigger a cut-off of cooperation by all supplier-states, leaving its civil power reactors high and dry, yet subject to permanent international inspections. Indeed, the greater the investments it makes in imports-based generating capacity, the greater will be its vulnerability to external penal actions and the construction of its strategic options. Today, its goal of erecting a credible and survivable nuclear deterrent, as the private intelligence service Stratfor has put it, remains at least a decade away.

The manner a nuclear deal can be employed as a foreign-policy instrument has been underscored by the US action to punish Russia over Georgia by scuppering a key deal with Moscow that was until recently a top Bush priority. That deal would have opened extensive US-Russian nuclear trade, besides allowing Moscow to import, store and possibly reprocess spent fuel from proposed US reactor exports to countries like India. If America can openly invoke a deal as a castigatory instrument against nuclear peer Russia, it certainly would have less hesitation to do so against an India that would become hopelessly dependent on foreign fuel and replacement parts under a patently inequitable deal whose fuel-supply assurances, in Mr Bush’s own words, are not legally binding but mere “political commitments”, ostensibly to help Dr Singh save public face. After all, didn’t the US invoke that very instrument against India in response to its 1974 test, impeding deterrent-building and instilling the political timidity that has come to epitomise the Indian state?

The latest deal-making ought to be seen as culmination of the process the US set in motion in 1974 to bring India to heel. It imposes on India obligations that no other nuclear-armed state will countenance. The watertight civil-military separation, for instance, will destroy what the then Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, R. Chidambaram, in 1996 described as “the lateral synergy which exists between the one and the other…You can’t have one without the other.” It also compels India to shut down its main military-production workhorse, the Cirus reactor—the biggest cumulative contributor of weapons-grade plutonium to India’s stockpile, as a recent US Energy Department-funded study by Paul Nelson et al points out. Given that work on a replacement reactor has not begun to date, the Cirus dismantlement in two years’ time will surely result in a significant shortfall in bomb grade plutonium production.

In addition, the deal seeks to qualitatively and quantitatively crimp deterrent-building through varied non-proliferation fetters. The deal-tied US-legislative and multilateral review processes will subject to the glare of international scrutiny Indian nuclear actions and activities, including any “significant changes”, as the Hyde Act mandates, “in the production by India of nuclear weapons or in the types or amounts of fissile material produced”.

While inhibiting deterrent-building as per the US goal to keep India’s capabilities regionally confined, the deal would help instil Indian security dependency on America. In fact, more than commercial nuclear power, it is US arms exports and closer Indo-US strategic ties that the deal is likely to promote. Before long, Dr Singh is expected to sign three agreements that US officials are pressing to forge closer bilateral military ties. One is a logistic support accord, another is to provide for end-use monitoring of transferred US weapon systems, and the third is to promote military-communications interoperability.

Since the deal was unveiled, India has agreed to buy systems the US has already sold Pakistan, including maritime reconnaissance aircraft, military transport planes and Harpoon missiles. This raises the question whether New Delhi is seeking to build a first-rate military with strategic reach and an independent nuclear deterrent, or a military that will remain irredeemably dependent on imports and serve as a money-spinning dumping ground for conventional weapons India can do without. A gas leak this year killed an Indian officer and five sailors on board a 1971-vintage amphibious transport ship junked by the US Navy and brought by India months earlier.

Such reckless and wasteful arms purchases at the expense of an indigenous deterrent will become more common, if the nuclear deal takes effect. While offering an immensely lucrative opening for outside vendors, the deal will saddle India with a retarded deterrent. India is being effectively tethered to an India-specific NPT, the Hyde Act, with Mr Bush’s legislative submissions to win congressional ratification labelled the “Hyde Package”. Even the NSG waiver is in harmony with the Hyde Act, mirroring its core conditions. It is still not too late for New Delhi to step back from the precipice of a self-injurious deal and return to the unfinished task of deterrent-building, or else India will remain for the foreseeable future a subcontinental power with global power pretensions.

(Courtesy : The Hindu)

Brahma Chellaney, a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

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