US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is in town today, with the stated purpose of consolidating and pushing further the new directions in Indo-US strategic and economic relations, created over the last half-decade. On her agenda, she has indicated priority to both global and bilateral relations. At the global level are climate change and non-proliferation, and there are several issues at the bilateral level, including the “operationalization” of the iconic Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. India, too, is bound to have its own agenda. In an otherwise fairly upbeat scenario, a small and abstruse element in bilateral nuclear relations has thrust itself to the forefront.
Photo: Haraz N Ghanbari / AP
The normally sober Hindu reported that at the recently concluded Group of Eight, or G-8, summit in Italy, the G-8 countries had “blocked ‘full’ nuclear trade with India” and had imposed a “ban on ENR (enrichment and reprocessing) sales” to India. The relevant part of this G-8 declaration reads: “While noting that the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) has not yet reached consensus on this issue, we agree that the NSG discussions have yielded useful and constructive proposals contained in the NSG’s clean text developed at the November 20, 2008 consultative group meeting. Pending completion of work in the NSG, we agree to implement the text on a national basis in the next year.” The “clean text” referred to is not a public document, and it is somewhat confusing that The Hindu relied on a comment by an unnamed diplomat from a G-8 country that non-membership of NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) was an agreed criterion for restrictions on ENR transfers should have led to such a conclusion. Nonetheless, the issue has raised concerns both in the public mind and in Parliament. It is clear, though, that G-8 does not refer to India or NPT, nor does it refer to a ban on exports to India.
There is, however, agreement in NSG that the transfers of technology and material related to ENR by those who possess them should be restricted—it is clear from the beginning of the paragraph that the context in which the increased restrictions are being considered is the so-called nuclear “renaissance”. What is not agreed is to whom these should not be exported. It has been agreed that a criteria-based approach should be used to identify those who are to be denied these technologies and materials, but there is no agreement on what those criteria should be. Certainly, the inclusion of countries which are not members of NPT—a so-called “objective” criterion—is on the table, proposed by the US, but so are other criteria, such as countries that do not already possess such technologies, countries in volatile areas, countries that have not signed an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), countries that are not of good standing (a “subjective” criterion) and so on. There is no agreement to date in NSG, which works by consensus.
For the sake of clarification for the general reader, ENR technologies could enable countries to produce nuclear weapons, through uranium enriched beyond 95% and plutonium reprocessed from spent fuel from nuclear power reactors. India already has both technologies, though access to global technologies may help in upgrading facilities—should that be required in the future.
On 4 September, while NSG was debating the issue of restricting transfers of ENR technologies and materials, NSG agreed to “exceptionalize” India and waived the guidelines that had restricted global civilian nuclear cooperation with India. India, in return, had made certain non-proliferation commitments—such as continuing the moratorium on testing and support for the objectives of non-proliferation. The question that has been raised is whether the G-8 exhortation— which in itself is non-specific and certainly not aimed at India— would lead to a formulation in NSG which, in effect, would open up the waiver of September 2008.
The Prime Minister has clarified that France, a member of G-8, has assured him of “full” civilian nuclear cooperation; the finance minister has relied on the acceptance by IAEA and NSG of India’s “exceptionalization”. Is it likely that those countries which have individually and formally informed IAEA of the change in their laws following the NSG waiver of September last would change their laws again—against India? Perhaps. But would the criterion of non-NPT membership contribute to the goal of non-proliferation at a time of nuclear renaissance? There are only four countries that are not members of NPT—Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. And all are known to be nuclear-armed; therefore, all possess ENR technology. The only purpose to include such a criterion would be to try and pressure these countries to join NPT.
Those who are today wary of the non-proliferation policies of the new Obama administration may be justified if the linkage to NPT is the case. The Indo-US nuclear agreement was meant to remove the nuclear thorn in the side of Indo-US relations. Even if this issue is not on the agenda of secretary of state Clinton, the opportunity should not be missed to clarify issues rather than permit a potential irritant to fester.
Arundhati Ghose is former ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament. Comments are welcome at email@example.com