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A ‘Sweet Deal’ for India

The India-US Joint Statement, agreed to on the first day of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s successful July 18-20 visit to Washington D...

Written by Walter Andersen |
July 23, 2005

The India-US Joint Statement, agreed to on the first day of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s successful July 18-20 visit to Washington D.C., pledges the Bush administration to push for a cooperative bilateral agreement that would provide India fuel and technology for its civilian nuclear energy, while allowing it to retain its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. ‘‘India got a sweet deal’’ is the way one State Department official working the non-proliferation issue described to me the Bush administration’s support for a change in US nuclear non-proliferation policy on behalf of India. The administration’s decision to alter our 30-year-old non-proliferation policy on behalf of India was the most dramatic development of the visit and was the issue receiving the heaviest press attention.

This very political town was taken aback not just by the scope of the decision, but by the ability of the triumvirate of senior policy-makers at the State Department, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, her deputy secretary Robert Zoellick and her counselor Philip Zelikow, to keep their deliberations of a sensitive issue on extremely close hold. This tactic succeeded in preventing leaks, which could have undermined the project by giving its opponents, both those within the bureaucracy and those outside it, time to build a case and solicit allies. The India exception to US non-proliferation policy is another indication of the preeminent influence of the Secretary of State on foreign policy issues. The State Department has regained its role as the undisputed centre of foreign policy-making.

The nuclear non-proliferation cadre in this city has already begun its campaign against any changes in US non-proliferation law. They fear that this exceptionalism on behalf of India will prompt other countries to take a similar approach towards countries we consider problematic. Russia, for example, might cite India to justify further assistance to Iran’s nuclear power programme. These critics also fear that existing rules on the export of nuclear related technology will be replaced by rules governed by commercial gain. They argue that there are other less risky ways to strengthen the relationship with India and achieve the same strategic objective.

The counter-argument will almost certainly be that a democratic India has proved to be responsible on nuclear issues. Such a changed approach to India, moreover, provides an opportunity to work out ways to bring a nuclear-capable India inside the international non-proliferation regime. India has pledged in the Joint Statement to place all its civilian nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and to continue its testing moratorium. The non-proliferation cadre will object that that is insufficient because the safeguards should cover military as well as civilian nuclear facilities. The strategic justification for making India an exceptional case, which will be phrased diplomatically, is to build Indian strength ‘‘for balance of power purposes’’ in Asia or to better manage ‘‘the emergence of China.’’ India, in addition, is a rising swing state in Asia whose cooperation we may need in future crises, and that we need now in the global war on terrorism. It is a stable democracy in a very unstable and strategically important area to the US.

In order to implement the proposals laid out in the India-US Joint Statement, the Bush administration will have to rally support from Congress to change existing law and from the international community to permit an exception for India on various international nuclear export regimes. It launched this campaign almost immediately after the issuance of the Joint Statement. The anticipated presidential visit to India in early 2006 puts some pressure on the Bush administration to get favourable Congressional action fairly soon and to start the process of negotiations with India to determine the level of our nuclear cooperation.

The Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate will probably support a policy change that is so strongly backed by the White House. There is mumbling of dissent from some Democrats, but many of the Democrats are also friends of India and the increasingly influential Indian-American community is already gearing up for what will probably be its most intensive political campaign to date. Democrats will have to ask themselves whether opposing an action so important to the politically active part of the Indian-American community is a risk they want to take. Polls show that the Indian-American community up to now has tended to support the Democrats. On the international scene, the administration’s lobbying efforts have already begun to show results. Mohamed-el-Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a July 20 statement voiced his support of the US plan to help a nuclear-armed India obtain atomic technology for its civilian facilities, and said that India’s intention to place all its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards is a welcome step.

The lack of US support for India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security council seems to be at cross-purposes with the stated Bush administration’s objective of helping India become an influential international actor. On the eve of Prime Minister Singh’s visit, the US State Department official responsible for UN reforms splashed some very cold water on India’s hopes by arguing at the UN that the Bush administration did not think any proposal to expand the Security Council should be voted on ‘‘at this stage.’’ The lack of US action on Security Council reform may be due to the continuing internal bureaucratic debate over several complex issues, such as which countries should become permanent members and should they have the veto power. The administration, for tactical reasons, might also have deferred action so as not to overload its policy plate with major policy changes. At some point, the same State Department triumvirate that secured the nuclear breakthrough will have to apply a similar focus to UN Security Council reform because wrangling among various regional and functional bureaus at the State Department is likely to impede speedy action.

The writer is currently Associate Director, South Asia Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C. Email:

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