US Chumminess With India Roils Strategic Waters

This week’s agreement by U.S. President George W. Bush to sell advanced nuclear technology to India, coming three weeks after the signing of a 10-year bilateral defense agreement that makes New Delhi eligible to buy sophisticated U.S. military equipment, confirms a major policy shift with global as well as regional implications, according to experts here.

On the one hand, the Bush administration appears to have definitively turned its back on key elements of a 30-year strategy to discourage non-signatories of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) from going nuclear, as well as its traditional "tilt" toward Pakistan in the South Asian balance of power.

Although Washington agreed in March to sell Pakistan advanced warplanes that it has long sought, Islamabad announced Monday it was putting off a scheduled visit to the White House next week by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, although officials there denied that it was related to the new Indo-U.S. agreement.

At the same time, the two agreements mark a qualitatively new stage in efforts by the administration to transform India into a de facto U.S. ally that can be used as a counterweight to an emerging China, which is depicted increasingly by a variety of forces here, especially the Pentagon, as the biggest long-term threat to maintaining U.S. hegemony in Asia.

"This is seen as another brick in the anti-China containment strategy," according to Joseph Cirincione, a foreign policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who also called Bush’s decision to sell nuclear fuel and technology to Delhi "a huge mistake."

"It curries favor with India but undermines almost every U.S. nonproliferation goal and will make it much harder to get the international cooperation we need to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons," he told IPS, adding that it will now be much easier for Russia to defend its nuclear sales to Iran.

"It definitely raises questions about U.S. nonproliferation policy," agreed Arjun Makhijani, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER).

"Many countries that want civilian nuclear technology but that also feel insecure without nuclear weapons will now wonder what is the substance of U.S. policy beyond treating those who have them lightly and those who don’t with force."

The nuclear agreement, which capped a state visit here by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was the latest and most dramatic step in a bilateral courtship that began shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Delhi’s Cold War ally. It gained momentum in the late 1990s when Washington became actively engaged in defusing tensions between India and Pakistan, and accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The importance of Singh’s three-day visit was underlined by the red-carpet treatment he was accorded. It included an address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday in which the Indian leader vowed that his country "never will be a source of proliferation of sensitive technologies," as well as a formal state dinner Monday night – "the first big White House social event in two nearly two years" – hosted by a U.S. president whose hatred of dressing up for fancy occasions is well known.

Although Singh did not receive everything he wanted – the administration declined to publicly support India’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat or lift its opposition to the construction of a pipeline that will transport natural gas from Iran through Pakistan to India – Bush’s agreement to supply nuclear fuel and technology was hailed by the Indian press as a historic breakthrough and confirmation of Delhi’s emergence as a major world power.

India, which never signed the NPT, shocked the world when it exploded a nuclear device in 1974, and then again in 1998 when it conducted three underground nuclear tests that were quickly followed by one by Pakistan, bringing tensions between the two countries to a boil.

The U.S. responded to the 1974 test by cutting off bilateral nuclear cooperation and creating the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), now 44 nations strong, that has agreed not to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to non-NPT states or to those that have not accepted "full-scope" inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of all their nuclear facilities.

After the 1998 tests, the administration of former President Bill Clinton imposed economic sanctions against India. They were repealed after the 9/11 attacks at roughly the same time that Bush lifted a ban on U.S. military aid and sales to Pakistan first imposed in the early 1990s when his father concluded that Islamabad had, for all practical purposes, built a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear experts here said Monday’s accord – under which India agreed to put its civilian, but not its military, nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards – threatens the NSG, in particular.

"The whole concept was, ‘Let’s not reward countries that build nuclear weapons,’" said George Perkovich, another nuclear analyst at Carnegie who also specializes in South Asia.

"We want other countries to join us in enforcing rules, but then if we break them, we could weaken other countries’ willingness to enforce those rules that we want to enforce, leading them, for example, to do what we don’t want them to do," he added, citing the possibility that China may sell nuclear technology to Pakistan which, like India, is not an NPT member.

Perkovich and others stressed that Monday’s agreement amounts so far only to a statement of intention and that several hurdles could still block its consummation.

The U.S. Nonproliferation Act (NPA) currently bans transfers of sensitive nuclear equipment to countries that refuse IAEA monitoring, so that Bush will have to ask Congress to amend the law. Whether lawmakers will do so is unclear, but early reaction among some influential Democrats was distinctly negative.

In addition, Bush is expected to ask the NSG, some of whose members, such as France and Russia, are likely to strongly oppose any change, to amend its rules, according to Cirincione.

"If he can get others to agree to change the rules, then it’s not objectionable," said Perkovich. "But if he can’t, and then he goes ahead and does it anyway, then he’s breaking established rules, and then you have serious problems."

These obstacles to fulfilling Monday’s agreement were not the only reason, according to Perkovich, why what he called "the tremendous amount of hype and euphoria" that has marked this week’s summit may be a bit misleading.

"The U.S. is correct to recognize India’s growing importance and improved relations, but we’re overlooking real differences that remain," he said, particularly in the area of trade.

Indeed, one of the architects of Bush’s policy, Ashley Tellis, has warned that Washington’s failure to follow through on its stated intentions could quickly deflate the expectations – and the influence of U.S. boosters – on the Indian side.

Conversely, "given the difficult changes in U.S. policy and law required to satisfy New Delhi, it will become increasingly obvious over time that the Bush administration will have diminishing incentives to accept these burdens if India is unable to demonstrate a new willingness to ally itself with American purposes," according to a recent study by Tellis, a former top official in Washington’s embassy in Delhi.

According to Makhijani, much now depends on how willing the Bush administration is to accept that India will resist being "moved around the geopolitical chessboard," particularly with respect to its desire to build the Iran-India pipeline and to avoid confrontation with China.

"While the U.S. hopes that India will be a bulwark against China, the Indians have made clear this won’t happen," he said. "The relationship will be on a good course if the U.S. recognizes that."

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Jim Lobe

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.