Politics & Policy

Realities & Necessities

It's time to approve the India nuclear deal.

On March 2, while the President Bush was visiting New Delhi, he and Prime Minister Singh signed an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. The agreement requires congressional action to implement, however, and little has been done to move this process forward. Later today, the House International Relations Committee is scheduled to mark up H.R. 4974, a bill to authorize the president to waive the application of certain requirements of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 with respect to India, but floor action in the House and favorable actions of any kind in the Senate are a question mark.

#ad#On June 22, Vice President Dick Cheney tried to get the ball rolling with a speech to the U.S.-India Business Council in which he called the agreement “one of the most important strategic foreign-policy initiatives of our government.” He stressed that “Today there is a new strategic partnership between our countries — a partnership based on democratic values, common interests, strong commercial ties and a climate of trust and good faith between our governments.”

Yet, in an interview with the London Financial Times earlier in the week, Sen. John McCain said that Congress would probably not act on the measure this year because of the need to “scrutinize the deal rigorously.” Critics fear that lifting restrictions on nuclear cooperation with India, a country that has developed nuclear weapons without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would set a bad precedent at a time when the United States is trying to rally international opinion against the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

Former President Jimmy Carter complained in a March 29 Washington Post op-ed, “During the past five years the United States has abandoned many of the nuclear arms control agreements negotiated since the administration of Dwight Eisenhower…The proposed nuclear deal with India is just one more step in opening a Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation.”

This issue came up when Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice testified about the India agreement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 5. In his opening statement, Democratic ranking member Sen. Joseph Biden said, “We must not assist India’s nuclear weapons program … not because India is an adversary, which it is not, but because nuclear non-proliferation is a vital U.S. national interest, as well as a formal treaty obligation. We must not undermine world support for the nuclear non-proliferation regime by saying that nuclear weapons are fine for our friends.” Yet this is exactly what the U.S. has done for the past sixty years, and must continue to do in the real world of global power politics.

The United States directly helped Great Britain’s nuclear-weapons program during the Cold War. France developed an independent nuclear deterrent, and while this was often disquieting to American leaders, it was not considered a threat like the weapons deployed by Russia or China. Israel is believed to have nuclear arms, but Washington has rightly refused to consider this as the moral equivalent of an Iranian bomb. Treating friends and rivals differently is the essence of foreign policy.

The agreement does have nonproliferation elements. India will place all future civilian nuclear reactors, and 14 of its current 22 reactors, under IAEA control and inspection. It will also continue its moratorium on nuclear-weapons tests. But it will not stop building nuclear weapons or the means to deliver them because of the dangerous geopolitical situation with which New Delhi must contend, situated as it is between radical Islamic states to the west and a rising China to the east.

In the current situation, what the U.S. cannot afford to do is to treat India as a nation inferior in standing to China. In her testimony to the SFRC, Secretary Rice made clear that she understands this: “India would never accept a unilateral freeze or cap on its nuclear arsenal. We raised this with the Indians, but the Indians said that its plans and policies must take into account regional realities. No one can credibly assert that India would accept what would amount to an arms control agreement that did not include other key countries, like China and Pakistan.”

Wisdom is the ability to judge how things differ on their merits. On that basis, India is clearly not an Iran or North Korea. India already has a fledgling nuclear arsenal and an expanding atomic energy program. India first conducted an underground nuclear test in 1974. It was prompted to pursue such a program by China’s entry into the nuclear club ten years earlier. India then renounced the development of weapons and as late as 1988 was still calling for U.N. talks to eliminate all nuclear arms. But the rapid rise of China, and the increased militancy of Beijing’s ally Pakistan, heightened regional tensions. India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, bringing new U.S. sanctions against both countries, though the Clinton administration considered Pakistan, with its support for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Kashmir, to be more dangerous. The sanctions on New Delhi were lifted in 2001 as President George W. Bush gave a high priority to improving U.S.-India relations.

Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said on March 22, “This deal is positive for United States national security interest because it will help us first cement our strategic partnership with India, which is very important for our global interests.” Though unstated for diplomatic reasons, the most important global security interest served by improved U.S.-India relations is to balance Chinese power in Asia.

Beijing wants to keep New Delhi in an inferior position. Just as China has opposed allowing either India or Japan to become permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in order to maintain its unique position as the only Asian state with that status, it also wants to maintain its status as the only “legal” nuclear power in the region.

China is using the non-proliferation standard in its campaign against the U.S.-India nuclear deal. Beijing wants India to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state — meaning it would have to disarm. China is recognized as a nuclear state under the NPT. China’s ally Pakistan, which Beijing has helped to develop both weapons and delivery systems, would stay armed. The U.S. knows that India will only sign the NPT as a nuclear weapons state, so it is easier to avoid the declaration by not pressuring New Delhi to sign at all.

China wants to keep India out of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which Beijing was only allowed to join in 2004; and to keep India from importing uranium, even as Beijing has just completed a new deal for uranium from Australia.

Left-wing critics of American foreign policy have also turned against India as a potential U.S. ally. Writing in The Hindu on April 9, Shelley Walia reported that the prominent foe of “American hegemony” Noam Chomsky “clearly feels that India, like China, has the options to be independent or become a U.S. client.” And in the face of increased cooperation between China, Iran, Pakistan; Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, it is not surprising the U.S. would try to keep India in its camp by offering what Walia calls “nuclear cooperation and other inducements as a lure.”

India will not, however, join “Britain in its role as a spear-carrier for the pax Americana” as Chomsky has alleged. New Delhi will continue to value its independence as an emerging great power. But China’s rise and its naked ambitions will draw New Delhi and Washington closer together.

There are already signs of this convergence. When the Bush administration pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, China’s opposition to America’s missile defense program accelerated, but India’s reaction was to endorse part of the U.S. missile defense initiative. India has a similar concern about the spread of ballistic missiles in its part of the world, a region whose unstable regimes may not be contained by a posture of deterrence only. The new U.S.-India nuclear agreement, supported by the appropriate congressional amendments to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, would open the door for cooperation between the two nations on other projects, including missile defense and fighter aircraft. 

New Delhi does not pose the kind of proliferation threat that Beijing poses with its provocative record of aid to rogue states, including Tehran. Indeed, China’s strong diplomatic and material support for Iran during the current crisis brings the strategic debate full circle. The notion of an international community with a moral consensus embodied in institutions of collective security is a myth. The real world is still one of contending states forming alliances and alignments to further their own interests.

President Bush has defined Iran as “a nation held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people…The Iranian regime sponsors terrorists and is actively working to expand its influence in the region. The Iranian regime has advocated the destruction of our ally, Israel. And the Iranian regime is defying the world with its ambitions for nuclear weapons.” This litany of bad behavior by the Tehran regime does not apply to the democratic government in New Delhi, whose strategic interests are generally (if not perfectly) in accord with those of Washington.

The new U.S.-India nuclear pact is an important step in creating a more stable alignment in Asia that can support American security interests in the region. Critics in Congress and the arms control community must not be allowed to disrupt this successful and vital diplomatic initiative.

– William Hawkins is senior fellow for national Security Studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council in Washington.

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