Controversy over U.S.-India nuclear deal hasn’t done anyone any good

Nuclear Distraction

September 10, 2008

The U.S.-India civil nuclear deal came one step closer to final approval over the weekend, as the international Nuclear Suppliers Group granted its imprimatur. Yet the controversy over the proposed pact remains as fierce as ever, not least in India. As a result, ironically, it’s still possible the deal could end up distracting both sides from the hard work of deepening their relationship.

This is mainly a consequence of how the deal has been oversold by politicians both in New Delhi and in Washington. From the time it was unveiled more than three years ago as an agreement-in-principle, its backers have framed the deal in terms of broader strategic objectives. Supporters in India have argued it will cement U.S.-India ties and facilitate technology transfers in fields beyond commercial nuclear power. Backers in the U.S. have argued the deal will make it easier for Washington to call on India as a counterweight to China’s influence, and expand commercial opportunities for Americans.

But none of these claims is entirely realistic. In fact, these arguments merely distort the debate. In India, the nuclear deal has become a flashpoint for partisan debates about India’s place in the world and how it should manage its relationship with the U.S. This will make the deal, and possibly the relationship, less stable if power changes hands between parties in a general election in India due at the latest by next April. And it’s created unrealistic expectations in Washington.

In short, the hype over the nuclear deal needs to be tempered by certain realities.

First among these is that a durable U.S.-India partnership cannot be built on strategic opportunism, but rather must grow from shared national interests. In coming years, India will increasingly be aligned with the West economically. But strategically it can avail itself of multiple options, even as it moves from nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized strategic framework. In keeping with its long-standing preference for policy independence, India is likely to become multialigned, while tilting more toward the U.S.

Some clarity on this point from the deal’s backers in New Delhi might have made it easier to secure support. It would also have helped had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh done what he had repeatedly promised: "build the broadest possible national consensus in favor of the deal." He should not have turned the deal into an openly partisan issue, for it will have to be implemented well after his government’s term.

The danger now is that if the opposition wins the national election, it may re-open negotiations on the nuclear deal. That could risk sending the wrong signal about India’s general commitment to maintaining positive relations with the U.S., given the significance this particular deal has assumed in that relationship.

The deal’s backers in Washington have also been guilty of overselling it, albeit in different ways. On the strategic level, they have argued that the deal will bring India into the U.S. camp as a regional counterweight to China’s growing influence. But it appears unlikely that India would allow itself to be used as a foil against an increasingly assertive China, lest Beijing step up military pressure along the long disputed Himalayan frontier and surrogate threats via Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh. India, as would any country, will continue to craft policy based on its own interests.

The Bush administration is also going overboard in touting the commercial benefits. As Bush administration letter to Congress, released last week, states, the deal is supposed to help revive the U.S. nuclear-power industry through exports and "access to Indian nuclear infrastructure," allowing "U.S. companies to build reactors more competitively here and in the rest of the world — not just in India." With its acute shortage of nuclear engineers, the U.S. intends to tap India’s vast technical manpower.

But not all of this is entirely realistic, especially expectations that India will be a boom market for U.S. nuclear exports. Even with the deal, nuclear power will continue to play a modest role in India’s energy mix. With the proposed import of eight 1,000-megawatt reactors within the next four years, the share of nuclear power in India’s electricity generation is unlikely to rise above the current 2.5%.

The Indian economy will probably not get much of a boost from the deal as a result. Furthermore, private investment in nuclear power will be hindered by many factors. The messy terms of the deal itself, with its many eclectic provisions designed to assuage nonproliferation concerns, will still impose many barriers on the transfer of nuclear fuel and technology, and not all of the conditions are even explicitly spelled out. Political uncertainty in India will also remain given the strong partisan opposition. And time is short to ratify the pact in Washington before elections in the U.S. bring in a new Congress and new administration.

The nuclear deal does play a role in bolstering U.S.-India ties (albeit not as much as politicians would have you believe). India has agreed to fully support U.S. nonproliferation initiatives, for example, and to consider participating in U.S.-led multinational military operations. And as a thank-you for the role President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally played in securing the suppliers group’s approval, Prime Minister Singh is expected to sign shortly three agreements that U.S. officials say are critical to forge closer bilateral military ties. These will facilitate cooperation on logistical operations, provide for monitoring of the end uses of transferred weapons systems, and enhance communications interoperability. But the two sides could have made progress on all these fronts independent of a civil nuclear deal.

The deal may also benefit ongoing negotiations over sales of military equipment to India. In addition to the orders it recently placed for American maritime reconnaissance aircraft and military transport planes, India — one of the world’s biggest arms importers — is gearing up to buy other American weapon systems. If Congress ratifies the nuclear deal, America is most likely to clinch the intense international competition to sell India 126 fighter-jets in a $10-billion contract. In this contest, Lockheed Martin has pitched its F-16 against Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

Yet such progress isn’t dependent on a civil nuclear deal. Indeed, that may be the greatest danger of the current discussion. Because it has become such a controversial issue, the nuclear deal is threatening to overwhelm the broader dialogue India and the U.S. need to sustain about their relationship. The raging controversy hasn’t done anyone any good.

Mr. Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan" (HarperCollins, 2007).

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