NEW DELHI When President George W. Bush last month announced his support for a deal allowing civilian nuclear technology sales to India, a storm of protests arose. Nonproliferation advocates around the globe were angered that Bush had implicitly legitimized New Delhi’s nuclear arsenal, but what has been less noted is that Indian voices were raised also. Why? Because the technology deal involves an unequal bargain in which India gains few benefits even as it agrees to many restrictions – including a limit on its ability to deter its nuclear-armed neighbor China.
India claims that under the deal it will assume the same duties and rights as the other nuclear powers, "no more and no less." The truth, however, is different. Indeed, China’s welcome and Pakistan’s lack of protest indicate their glee over a deal that employs the lure of commercial nuclear power assistance to help constrain the growth of India’s nuclear military capacity.
The deal has advantages for America. If approved by the U.S. Congress and the other nuclear powers, it would lift a sales ban that dates back to the first Indian nuclear explosion in 1974. The ban has been a major stumbling block to the forging of a true U.S.-Indian strategic partnership. Another advantage for Washington is that the deal opens the way to tens of billions of dollars worth of contracts for U.S. technology.
What India gets out of it is less clear. One benefit is that the deal would allow the country to import nuclear reactors and fuel for generating electricity. But the protesters in India are focusing on the deal’s implications for the country’s nascent nuclear military program. China has always been the primary focus of its nuclear drive; India still lacks missiles that can strike deep into the Chinese heartland.
And while Bush has made only a promise that he may not be able to fulfill, the deal lists a lot of requirements for India. This includes bringing civil nuclear plants and materials under international monitoring, allowing foreign inspectors unhindered access, and refraining from further testing.
By agreeing to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs, India will raise the costs of its declared policy to build a "credible minimum deterrent." The deal strikes the weak spot of India’s nuclear military capacity – its umbilical ties with the civilian program. India’s weapons program flows out of the civilian nuclear program.
Bush, meanwhile, rejected New Delhi’s request that the deal classify India as a nuclear-weapons state. India, however, has agreed to take on obligations that the recognized nuclear powers have not accepted.
First, India is to begin "identifying and separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programs in a phased manner" and then declare the civilian part in full to the International Atomic Energy Agency. (In contrast, China will remain free from any obligation to carry out civil-military segregation.)
Second, India has agreed to "voluntarily" allow all its civil nuclear sites to be inspected by the energy agency. The other nuclear powers have not done that in practice, because in a majority of cases there is not even the pretense of civil-military separation. The five recognized nuclear powers, under voluntary accords, offer nuclear materials and plants for agency inspections in name only. The agency, in return, carries out token inspections or, often, no inspections. India, however, will have to accept, on its civilian program, rigorous inspections. The atomic energy agency will treat it like a non-nuclear state.
Third, India has pledged "adherence," to the rules of the very nuclear technology cartels that continue to exclude it – the American-led Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.
For Bush, the deal is an astute move that can result in lucrative business contracts, secure a firm U.S. strategic foothold in India, and bring a large part of the Indian nuclear program under international monitoring. However, is it in the United States’s interest to limit India’s ability to deter China?
Bush faces an uphill task persuading both Congress and America’s partners in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (including China) to exempt India from export controls. New Delhi should wait until Bush has delivered his part of the bargain and then meet its obligations to the extent honored by the other nuclear powers, and with the same rights as them – "no more and no less."
(Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. )