On Monday and Tuesday, officials from India and the United States discussed the so-called ‘123 Agreement’ that will make operational the India-US civil nuclearcooperation deal that was announced on 18 July 2005, in Washington.
A lot of hard work remains to get the document, which will be signed by officials of both sides, for it to meet the requirements of commitments made by the two governments to their respective legislatures.
The key to the agreement is a plan that will separate India’s military and civil reactors in exchange for the US waiving laws that prohibit cooperation with the Indian civil nuclear sector.
Through the agreement, the United States has agreed to live with India as a nuclear weapons state. For more than 30 years it tried to prevent India going down that road and punished the country for its efforts with an embargo on its nuclear industry.
But eight years after India’s nuclear test in May 1998, the US has agreed to change the policy, which, ironically, was becoming more successful with time.
Since the agreement is for civil nuclear cooperation, it is silent about India’s military programme. India retains 35% of its installed thermal reactor capacity, one research reactor and one fast-breeder reactor for military purposes.
There is nothing to restrict India from building more reactors to make weapons. In any case, India has already accumulated spent fuel that can make a thousand or more weapons. Authoritative estimates of China’s nuclear arsenal range from 100 to 400 warheads. The British arsenal is said to be 200 warheads.
No weapons for India
Fortunately, there are no indications that India intends to go down the foolish road of building hundreds or thousands of warheads.
In the ninth year since its nuclear tests, the country has no deployed arsenal. In that sense the nuclear tests have not changed anything. Because of a lack of a reliable missile, India’s deterrent will still be delivered by the Indian Air Force. Its limited missile tests indicate that India doesn’t have that capability yet.
Despite the fantasies of nuclear maximalists, the country’s politicians have ensured that India’s arsenal remains minimal. Whether or not its posture is credible, is a matter of opinion.
But on matters relating to nuclear weapons, discretion is always the better part of valour. So the charge that the US has agreed to cooperate with India’s civil nuclear sector in order to restrict the country’s nuclear weapons capability does not hold much water.
The US’ goals are more complex. The country recognizes that the North Korean and Iranian actions seriously dented the old nuclear order shaped by the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). It also recognizes that India, nuclear or non-nuclear, is a status-quo power that not only does not threaten its interests, but can actually help shore them up.
It wants to befriend India and recognizes that you can’t seek friendship with a country on which you have a whole heap of embargoes. Since many of these embargoes flow out of that flawed NPT, the US has decided that at least for New Delhi, it will change the rules.
The Indian requirement
India’s needs, however, are different and more palpable. First, the nuclear embargo is the mother of all embargoes and has led to restrictions on export of other so-called dual use technology to India from the US, Japan and most technologically advanced nations.
Getting the nuclear embargo lifted will go a long way in easing the country’s access to high technology from around the world in a range of industries.
Second, there is another reason, kept quite hush-hush by India’s old nuclear scientists and critics of the Indo-US nuclear agreement: India is seriously short of natural uranium. The country does not have enough to allow its existing reactors to run on full power.
No one, not even Russia, will give India the fuel without the go-ahead of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, whose leader happens to be the US.
India has an ambitious three-stage programme to use its vast thorium reserves to generate nuclear power. But to reach stage two requires a vast amount of plutonium which will not be available till the embargo is lifted.
As oil prices rise and oil reserves diminish, nuclear power is coming back into the reckoning. The Indo-US agreement provides India a unique opportunity to end an embargo that has stunted its nuclear power programme and seriously hampered access to high technology.
No matter from which angle you look at the facts, one thing is clear—India needs the agreement far, far more urgently than the US.
(Manoj Joshi keeps a close eye on geopolitics from his perch as the strategic affairs editor of Hindustan Times. You can respond to the column by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org)