U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to India last week undoubtedly carried a message pointed straight at China. By underlining the importance of and building strategic partnerships with Beijing’s regional rivals, the apparent objective is to bring down China’s role and growing influence amid a bilateral dispute over the yuan’s exchange rate. Where does India fit in? It’s seen as a counterweight to China and the two countries have been long-time competitors. All this, on top of the obvious U.S. objective to deepen relations with the world’s largest democracy, a big security partner on counter-terrorism, and enormous market on which American businesses can thrive. So, it’s apparent that Washington is treating India as a responsible power and ally to American interests after having never been regarded as a possible ally in the second half of the 20th century. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon told reporters on Air Force One, “President Obama intends this trip to be — and intends our policy to be — a full embrace of India’s rise.”
Yes, the world and international relationships are constantly evolving, so policies should be crafted (sometimes revised) to fit new realities of the time and the future. However, on the nuclear front, we must remember some facts from history, near and distant, as well as the implications. Click “read more.”
1. Recall that the Bush administration signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with India in 2008, which undermined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since New Delhi is not an NPT-signatory. It also made it harder for the U.S. to be strict with other countries in future civilian nuclear agreements.
2. Recall that the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that same year awarded India with an exemption by lifting an embargo on nuclear trade with New Delhi. This embargo was put in place immediately following India’s nuclear test of 1974, the same year the NSG was formed. The waiver was granted based on India’s promise to abide by strict non-proliferation policy (still without signing the NPT) and in recognition of its energy needs. The waiver allows India to buy uranium for its existing reactors along with technologies to reprocess spent fuel and reduce radioactive waste (a process that also can help build nuclear bombs). However, this also opens the door for India to use the uranium for nuclear devices. It’s important to remember that India is the only non-NPT country to enjoy such a perk. Basically, the waiver recognizes India, which is outside the NPT, as a “nuclear weapons state” – a term and status that is strictly given to NPT members.
President Obama in November 2009 re-affirmed U.S. commitment for “the early and full implementation of our civil nuclear cooperation agreement [with India]… The lifting of U.S. export controls on high technology exports to India will open vast opportunities for giant research and development efforts. It will enable U.S. industry to benefit from the rapid economic and technological transformation that is now underway in our country.”
His recent trip ignited a wave of news articles from the Indian press about Washington’s plans to support New Delhi’s full membership in the nuclear club and other multilateral export control regimes (NSG, Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australian Group, Wassenaar Arrangement). Again, India is relying on the U.S. for successful entry, and reiterated its strong commitment to non-proliferation ahead of Obama’s trip.
Concerns in a nutshell:
1. India is not a signatory of the NPT, which means, it is not held accountable by the international non-proliferation regime.
2. India has signed the Additional Protocol (a good thing) and put its existing and future civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards (another good thing), but international inspectors cannot touch New Delhi’s military nuclear facilities. India also retains the right to designate a reactor as “civilian” or “military” (not good things).
3. India has agreed to continue its moratorium on nuclear weapons testing and to strengthen the security of its existing nuclear arsenals. However, nothing exists to prevent it from carrying out nuclear weapons tests. The 2008 NSG decision has made it more difficult to persuade India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and stop producing weapons-usable fissile materials.
4. Exceptions and inconsistencies: The plan for India’s entry into the NSG and export control regimes appears to be in phases. Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Froman reportedly said “As the membership criteria of these four regimes evolve, we intend to support India’s full membership in them. And at the same time, India will take steps to fully adopt the regime’s export control requirements to reflect its prospective membership.” NSG membership rules (as well as the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement) are currently linked to the NPT. But the U.S. and India appear to be working towards transcending the existing non-proliferation regime. Froman said the U.S. would “encourage the evolution of a membership criteria of these regimes consistent with maintaining their core principles” while a senior Indian official said, “We are constructing a paradigm beyond the NPT.”