It is something of a marvel that the U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement actually managed to receive the approval, however grudging, of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in early September. Many ardent proponents of nonproliferation had hoped that a curious combination of countries—ranging from a staunch U.S. ally, Australia, to a potential U.S. challenger, China—for very different reasons, would bury the deal in the NSG. The Australians were concerned about seeming to reward India, which has steadfastly refused to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). China, on the other hand, while couching its arguments in the rhetoric of nonproliferation, simply did not want to let India join the de facto nuclear club. Deft Indian and American diplomacy, combined with a subtle display of American political clout, including a phone call from President Bush to Chinese premier Hu Jintao, saved the day.
Despite this setback, the nonproliferation zealots still hope to have their day in Congress. Already some key members of the House, notably Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Howard Berman of California (both Democrats), have made intransigence to the deal well known. As Congress convenes to consider the deal, the nonproliferation brigade will quickly muster every conceivable argument, no matter how specious, to sandbag its progress.
What are their principal objections? Most importantly, they argue that it will have perverse consequences for the nonproliferation regime. India, a de facto nuclear weapons state that has remained outside the ambit of the NPT, will be able to maintain its nuclear weapons program and still partake in global nuclear commerce. This, in their view, is tantamount to rewarding a recalcitrant state. Furthermore, they argue that states which had previously joined the NPT may now reconsider their decisions given that India has been granted a pass. They also contend that the deal will energize various deceitful states, ranging from Iran to North Korea, to boost their nuclear weapons programs. In a similar vein, they suggest that Pakistan (also a non-signatory to the NPT) will now insist on equal treatment. Finally, they claim that nuclear power cannot possibly serve as a panacea for India’s expanding energy needs.
Each of these arguments, while seemingly attractive, is fundamentally flawed. The question of rewarding India despite its apparent recalcitrance is perhaps the most galling argument. If a state is not a party to a treaty why should it adhere to its expectations? Furthermore, this moralizing posture overlooks the very serious strategic threat that China poses to India. Even its apologists concede that China started the 1962 Himalayan conflict with India, that it has provided India’s querulous neighbor, Pakistan, with nuclear and ballistic missile technology, and seeks to prevent India from emerging as a potential rival for status and influence in Asia.
There is no evidence whatsoever that states that signed up to the NPT will now reconsider their decision to join because of the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal. The states that joined the NPT made their decisions on the basis of three compelling considerations. They were under the nuclear umbrella of major powers (e.g. Australia, Japan, South Korea), they faced no imminent security threats of any magnitude, or they simply did not possess the capabilities to acquire nuclear weapons. Merely providing a long litany of states that are adherents to the NPT is an empty and fatuous exercise.
Will this civilian nuclear deal boost the ambitions of Iran or North Korea? Hardly. These states, both signatories to the NPT, chose to blatantly violate its provisions for their own reasons. If they had cared one whit about international norms or obligations they would have invoked the “supreme national interest” clause of the NPT, withdrawn from it, and then embarked on their nuclear programs. Their decisions to accelerate or relinquish their nuclear weapons programs will be made on the basis of considerations other than a U.S.-India bilateral treaty.
Will Pakistan now demand equal treatment? As a matter of fact, it already has. However, equating India’s nonproliferation record with that of Pakistan is not merely mischievous but downright disingenuous. One of the principal architects of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programs, A.Q. Khan, ran a virtual nuclear supermarket in the 1990s. Much circumstantial evidence suggests that the Pakistani military was complicit in Khan’s vast clandestine nuclear network. On the other hand, is a matter of public record that India rebuffed both Libya and Iran when they sought nuclear weapons technology in exchange for uninterrupted and below-market price access to oil.
Finally, not a single supporter of the civilian nuclear agreement has argued that it will amount to a panacea for India’s energy needs. Instead they have contended that it would, if carefully implemented, augment the country’s ability to meet its burgeoning energy needs. Surely in the absence of any immediate mechanism to alleviate India’s chronic energy shortages a greater reliance on modern, well-constructed nuclear plants under appropriate international safeguards constitutes a desirable and reasonable alternative.
Time now, is of the essence. Falling prey to these dubious arguments would be construed in India as an act of bad faith. Such a rebuff at this late hour would cause inestimable damage to Indo-U.S. relations. These bilateral ties, which were quite frayed during the Cold War, thanks to India’s neuralgic and reflexive anti-Americanism, have undergone a dramatic transformation in the last two decades.
India has abandoned its mindless hostility toward the United States and now sees itself as a viable economic, strategic, and diplomatic partner. Caving in to the questionable claims of the parochial nonproliferation community that fails to take cognizance of India’s unique status, its growing international significance in Asia and beyond, and its acute energy needs, would amount to a colossal policy blunder. The time to seize the day has arrived.
Sumit Ganguly is a professor of political science and is the director of research at the Center on American and Global Security in Bloomington.