Monday, August 10, 2015
Not a Big Deal
Mutual distrust continues to haunt the 10-year-old Indo-US nuclear deal
By Pravin Sawhney
Sanjaya Baru (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media advisor) wondered why on the 10th anniversary of 18 July 2005 nuclear deal there was little celebration in Delhi when in the US, the Carnegie Endowment think-tank brought together bipartisan supporters of the deal including US vice president Joe Biden to mark the momentous occasion which resulted in strategic partnership between India and the US. He pointed out that few in India were clear about the deal (technical aspects), and still fewer understood a transactional relationship which is what the deal was about.
Meanwhile, Ashley J. Tellis, an astute US commentator intimately involved in the post-deal negotiations believes that ‘the nuclear deal transformed India overnight from being a target of determined US non-proliferation policy to becoming a partner in America’s larger geo-political endeavours.’
Was it really so considering geo-political partnerships require strategic trust? Ironically, India had reached out to the US before and after 1998 nuclear tests to be rebuffed with grand brush-off which, not coincidently, saw the unholy partnership between China and Pakistan come out of the closet. This generated vast distrust in the India-US bilateral relationship which the deal, given its unrealisable agenda and counter-productive pace, brought out into the open.
The roots of the nuclear deal go to India’s 1998 nuclear tests. When the Vajpayee government came to power, US President Bill Clinton sent commerce secretary and friend, Bill Richardson to India. His agenda was to find out if the BJP-led government would do the nuclear tests as committed in their election manifesto. Richardson got assurances at the highest level that decision for nuclear tests would depend upon the recommendations of the first-ever Strategic Defence Review. Prime Minister Vajpayee, however, encouraged Richardson to meet Jaswant Singh (his senior advisor on foreign and defence affairs) ‘in private’ according to Strobe Talbott’s book, Engaging India.
Jaswant Singh went alone to meet the Richardson team at the residence of the US ambassador to India. His mission: to tell them that ‘he was under instructions from Vajpayee to serve as a discreet — and if necessary, secret — channel to Washington, to be used for anything sensitive that the US leadership wished to convey to the Prime Minister.’ India was clearly proposing geopolitical partnership to the US. Jaswant Singh believed that close geopolitical ties with the US would help India transform its status from a balancing to a leading power.
Jaswant Singh — a rare politician in India who understood geopolitics — was aware of two strategic issues where understanding with the US was necessary. The first was India’s need for high technology, which since 1984 (the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on science and technology) had been a recurring talking point between the two counties. The second issue concerned China. In his book, Defending India published soon after the tests, he wrote, ‘from the early fifties, when Indian policy helped an emerging China, to now when the century ends, a relationship of equals no longer obtains. Clearly, India’s management of Sino-Indian relations has been a failure and the nation continues to pay the price.’
Immediately after the tests, unsure of how he would be received by an angry Clinton administration, Jaswant Singh got in touch with American expert, George Perkovich to explore possibility of his meetings at the US State Department. Without waiting to hear from the US administration, Jaswant Singh reached the US on 6 June 1998 where in a series of media interactions he explained India’s viewpoint — how the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the imminent universal acceptance of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) had forced India to safeguard its security interests. This, Jaswant Singh did after the Clinton administration had made Prime Minister Vajpayee’s letter to President Clinton where he had cited China as the main reason for conducting the May 1998 nuclear tests public.
If the US felt let down by India’s nuclear tests, the disclosure of Vajpayee’s letter by the US President was seen as a snub of India’s geopolitical aspirations. With India’s strategic intent out into the open, China decided to play hard ball: restrict India’s geopolitical ambitions through its proxy Pakistan while ensuring that India-US ties did not get too cosy for its comfort.
Jaswant Singh’s meeting with Richardson had not helped. What is more, within days of the test, Clinton dispatched secretary of state, Madeleine Albright to a specially convened US Security Council session where China held the (rotatory) chair. According to Talbott, the US team ‘spent hours talking the Chinese out of their preference for more India-bashing and harsher demands in the document.’ The drafted UN 1172 Security Council resolution of 6 June 1998 made impossible demand — that India and Pakistan join NPT as non-nuclear weapons states — and Kashmir as the likely flashpoint found mention in a UN resolution for first time after the 1972 Simla Agreement. Hereafter, UN 1172 resolution became China’s stick to beat India with. Most recently, China on 3 June 2015 said that ‘the Nuclear Suppliers Group regarded NPT status as a crucial standard to accept new member state (referring to India and Pakistan).
To take the nuclear deal story forward, once tempers cooled in Washington and sense prevailed that the nuclear genie could not be put back in the bottle, Jaswant Singh and his US interlocutor Strobe Talbott ‘met fourteen times at ten locations in seven countries on three continents’ (as Talbott put it) to come to an understanding. These interactions helped in formulation of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) announced on 13 January 2004 between Prime Minister Vajpayee and US President George W. Bush.
The NSSP covered three strategic areas, namely, civilian space programme, civilian nuclear activities and high-technology trade as well as dialogue on missile defence. Trade in defence hardware was deliberately not included in NSSP, perhaps because it was felt that trade in weapon platforms should follow trade in technology. This was meant to ensure that enough strategic trust is build before India purchased war-fighting platforms which would need uninterrupted supply of spares. India learned this lesson from US’ close ties with Pakistan where after the Pressler Amendment, the US refused delivery of F-16 aircraft for which money was already paid.
The NSSP followed the High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG) — meant for commercial trade in high technology for civilian use — established between the two countries in November 2002. According to the then US undersecretary of commerce, Kenneth Juster (FORCE, July 2004), ‘in some respects, the NSSP builds and expands upon the work being done in the HTCG. The HTCG set up a framework for reviewing and analysing how technology commerce between the US and India could be expanded across a broad range of categories, including information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and defence technology.’
Thus, the NSSP, a process capable of fulfilling India’s need of high technology and US’ need of tightening of Indian laws for better export controls (a non-proliferation requirement) was meant to, in a subtle progressive manner, help India and the US come geopolitically closer without ruffling China.
The slow movement on NSSP did not diminish its importance. According to the then US ambassador, David Mulford (FORCE, October 2004), ‘India is the only country with which the United States has Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiative,’ adding, ‘a key strategic relationship has to be built into a comprehensive relationship. Strategic, as you know, applies to a particular type of relationship. This relationship has been defined as the NSSP initiative.’ Simply put, the US’ focus was to build a comprehensive bilateral relationship of which the NSSP and military cooperation were two important components. This approach was adopted to reduce trust deficit needed for strengthening the bilateral relationship.
Given the high level of distrust, especially on the India side which felt let down in the aftermath of the tests, the NSSP was possibly the best approach for the relationship to grow. This was confirmed by the then NSA, Brajesh Mishra, who was less trusting of the US than Jaswant Singh. According to Mishra (FORCE, August 2005), ‘there were three phases in NSSP. In general terms there was a difference of opinion in what they (the US) were looking and what we were looking. At the end of NSSP, we were looking at lifting up of all restrictions on India’s civilian nuclear and space programme. This is not what they had in mind. They were looking at end-use verification and fissile material. So when phase one was over, they said that a new phase has begun. What they meant (in that) is a promise to work with Congress and their allies in Nuclear Suppliers Group.’
Given India’s stated minimum credible deterrence, which Mishra said ‘is a flexible concept’, ‘the NDA (Vajpayee) government had offered to put a few of our existing nuclear reactors under safeguards. The idea was that from the unsafeguarded reactors there would be enough fissile material for India’s minimum credible programme. We have 14 reactors in operation and about nine under (various stages of) construction (this was in August 2005). I would have said that all future reactors either built by us or with others’ cooperation will be put under safeguard. This way we would have had 10 to 11 unsafeguarded reactors. But this was not acceptable to the US.’
Just when the two sides started work on phase two of NSSP, the Vajpayee government was voted out of power. The incoming Manmohan Singh government with J.N. Dixit as the NSA while taking ownership of the NSSP, initiated talks with the Bush administration on phase two of the NSSP in September 2004. However, given the US Presidential elections, it was left to the second Bush administration to move the bilateral dialogue forward.
When the second Bush administration entered office, two major changes transformed the on-going dialogue between India and the US: Condoleezza Rice, a Bush family friend was elevated from the post of NSA to secretary of state, and on the sudden demise of Dixit, India got a new NSA, M.K. Narayanan, a former intelligence officer who was unaware of NSSP’s technical nuances. It was in such milieu that Rice, on her first oversees tour arrived in Delhi on 16 March 2005, and took the Indian dispensation by storm by her declaration that the US would help India become a major power.
There was excitement in Delhi and alarm in Islamabad and Beijing. While India had harboured ambitions of becoming a major power, it found it hard to believe that the foremost power of the time, while acknowledging India’s potential, had promised to help it achieve glory. Pakistan was worried that by de-hyphenating it from India the US might lose strategic interest in it. And China saw its containment in the partnership between India and the US.
After Rice’s spectacular announcement in Delhi, the NSSP was ended abruptly and talks on the nuclear deal — Rice brainchild — began. In her book, No Higher Honour, Rice writes, ‘The key from our point of view was to get India within the IAEA… better to have India in the tent in some fashion, even if New Delhi could not formally sign the NPT… at least, new construction of (Indian) reactors would be under safeguard. India already had more than enough nuclear material for its military programme. It needed help on the civilian side and we needed the strategic breakthrough with this emerging, democratic power.’
Rice’s trick had worked. The nuclear deal offered by her was too tempting for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to let it go easily. While suggesting nothing more substantive than the NSSP, the nuclear deal by its over-reach, all-inclusiveness, fast pace and pretence of equality between India and the US was probably a dishonest proposition. According to the deal, India was to place certain numbers of its nuclear reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In return, the US promised to end India’s nuclear apartheid by acknowledging it as a nuclear weapons power, agreed India have access to high and dual-use technologies, and offered to cooperate on civilian nuclear energy to meet India’s growing energy demands.
It seemed that India would get the moon: it would become a nuclear weapons power (with freedom to maintain its credible minimum deterrence); be free to decide on more indigenous nuclear reactors for strategic purposes; be part of the global restricted technology cartels, namely, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement (all led by the US); maintain strategic autonomy implying independent foreign policy; not be clubbed with Pakistan; be free to buy nuclear fuel (Uranium), run the nuclear closed fuel cycle (including reprocessing and subsequently the indigenous three-stage Thorium cycle), and purchase state-of-art nuclear reactors and Enrichment and Reprocessing (ENR) technologies for its energy needs. It appeared to be a win-win situation for India.
In reality, from the US perspective, the deal was about non-proliferation by coercing India to identify maximum numbers of its rectors for civilian use, getting India to de facto sign the CTBT even when the US Senate had rejected it, getting India’s foreign policy closely aligned with that of the US, doing commerce in civil nuclear reactors and defence (through a 10-year Defence Framework signed separately but highlighted in the 18 July 2005 framework document), and eventually having India as a junior strategic partner if not junior ally in the Asia-Pacific region.
What Mishra has foreseen seemed to come true. Going public within days of the 18 July 2005 framework document (joint statement with the nuclear deal) being signed in Washington, Mishra said (FORCE, August 2005), ‘My view is that if you offer to identify and separate the civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes, it will have long term national security impacts.’
Having flown across half the globe, Prime Minister Manmohan had a similar apprehension sitting in Washington’s Willard hotel, a block away from the White House on 17 July 2005 night when he was to sign the framework document which was meant to transform the bilateral relationship next day. He suddenly developed cold feet and according to Rice refused to meet her since he felt ‘he cannot sell (the deal) it in New Delhi.’ Reason: the US had shifted the goalpost and wanted India to ‘keep just two or three reactors outside safeguard’, India’s then NSA, Narayanan recently disclosed on the 10th anniversary of the deal.
While Rice managed to coax the Indian Prime Minister to sign the framework document, the hard work for India as the junior partner had just begun. While the excruciatingly long process with dramatic highs and lows — on account of US’ constant shifting of goalposts and meeting its global non-proliferation obligations which were contrary to the nuclear deal promises — which concluded on 10 October 2008 has been amply documented, a few instances indicative of the US duplicitousness deserve highlighting.
Having signed the framework document, Manmohan Singh returned home to enormous scepticism strewn across India. The Congress President Sonia Gandhi — the real power centre — and numerous Congress MPs were unsure about the deal. The Left parties — coalition partners of the government — were upset about closer ties with the US and wanted more transparency on the bilateral relationship. The opposition, led by the BJP, declared the framework document a sell out to the US. And, the diplomats and scientists were deeply divided on the strategic implications of the deal. In such a domestically charged atmosphere, US President Bush arrived on 2 March 2006 in Delhi to settle the deal’s separation plan — which reactors to come under safeguards and which would not. This turned out to be an acrimonious bilateral exercise as according to the framework document, India was to unilateraly take this decision.
Sanjaya Baru says in his book, The Accidental Prime Minister, ‘The Indian side still (as Manmohan Singh had insisted before signing the 18 July 2005 framework document) wanted a 14:8 division between civilian and military reactors, while the American side had not budged from its position of 18:4. Moreover, the Indian side was keen on keeping the two research reactors out of the IAEA safeguards.’ While the US ultimately relented to the Indian position — India would place 14 of its nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards by 2014 —, it appeared a pyrrhic victory.
When Manmohan Singh was informing the nation that with the separation plan, only 65 per cent of Indian reactors would be under safeguards, the US’ main interlocutor, Nicholas Burns told the media that ‘in one generation 90 per cent of Indian reactors would be under safeguards’. Burns was clearly hinting that India’s right to decide future indigenous reactors for strategic purposes as agreed to in the deal would be opposed by the US.
India was thus being subjected to restricted fissile material stocks even before the world had agreed to the terms of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. This is not all. The India-specific Additional Protocol that India signed with the IAEA was extremely intrusive and could through technical means monitor progress of the unsafeguarded reactors. Moreover, the US relented on keeping India’s research reactors out of safeguards because they have yet not harnessed the indigenous three-stage Thorium cycle (example of technology over-reach). Things might change in the future.
Interestingly, while Bush was pushing India’s case for exemption from the global restrictive regimes (NSG for waiver to India to do nuclear commercial trade) and the US Congress, the US, under its global commitment, was also urging the NSG to review its export control rules to check proliferation. Finally, in July 2011, the NSG announced its new export norms: only those nations which had signed the NPT would be eligible for ENR technologies. This came as a bombshell for India. While allowed to trade with the NSG, India would be denied reprocessing and enrichment technologies needed for utilisation of closed fuel cycle because it had not signed the NPT.
In simple terms, while India could buy nuclear fuel from the world, it could not use it fully as without reprocessing technologies it would be unable to use the nuclear waste for energy production. This was when, as scientists protested, India has its own limited reprocessing capabilities and is not entirely bereft of them.
Regarding India’s quest for membership of the NSG — the club which works on consensus principle — China has (July 2015) made it clear that signing of the NPT would be essential for new member states. What China has left unsaid is that India could become NSG member if it signs the NPT under US 1172 article as non-nuclear weapon state.
Even as the non-proliferation noose was being tightened on India (through signing of India-specific Additional Protocol with the IAEA, shifting US goalposts by re-interpretation of the separation plan and NSG export guidelines placing NPT signing benchmark), there was bilateral disagreement over how much India was obliged to align with US’ security concerns. India said that it would abide by the bilateral 123 agreement that it has signed with the US, while the US insisted on giving precedence to its own domestic law, the Henry J. Hyde Act of 2006 (essential for the US administration to sign the 123 agreement) which required India to respect US’ security agenda. This resulted in India’s flip-flop Iran policy as Delhi was torn asunder between its relationship with the US and the need for bilateral strategic ties with Tehran.
If this was not enough, two other contentious issues propped up: US’s disappointment over defence ties with India, and India’s 2010 Nuclear Liability Law. While the bilateral Defence Framework was signed in April 2005, three months before the July 2005 framework agreement, it got mentioned under the framework agreement. For this reason, the powerful US defence lobby which had played a major role in the passage of the nuclear deal through the US Congress expected, in a transactional fashion, to be rewarded. When none of the two US platforms which had participated in the over USD 40 billion Indian Air Force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition made it into the final in beginning 2012, numerous US Congressmen and leading analysts accused India of betrayal. A lot of pressure was put on New Delhi to consider another US platform — the F-35 aircraft — for the IAF.
Similarly, the Indian 2010 Nuclear Liability Law was found unacceptable to the US which argued that in the event of an accident, the liability, as per global norms, should be of the operator. Thus, when Manmohan Singh’s term in office ended in May 2014, few mentioned the nuclear deal as the outgoing government’s achievement. Those who did obfuscated matters by arguing the nuclear deal as a prime reason for overall improved ties between India and US. The truth remained that both the strategic and commercial aspects of the nuclear deal had remained unfulfilled. Nuclear commerce, which India had touted as the key reason for the deal, had not started. And, India, despite having accepted non-proliferation measures, namely, signing the Additional Protocol with the IAEA and undertaking the separation plan, had not operationalised the deal: the promised NSG waiver fell short of expectations. While India could do nuclear fuel commerce, there remains uncertainty about India getting reprocessing technologies to recycle spent fuel. Moreover, the high and dual-use technologies that were promised to India under the deal have not come; the HTCG had done more for bilateral trade in these areas.
Speaking at the Hindustan Times summit in Delhi on 7 December 2013, the architect of the nuclear deal, Condoleezza Rice admitted that, ‘the technology cooperation (with India) was tied to the Indo-US nuclear deal.’ While the US got the deal it wanted, India is still to get the technology it was promised under the NSSP, well before the deal happened.
Instead of an objective analysis of the nuclear deal, the Modi government on assuming power in May 2014, went along with the popular perception that the deal had transformed relations between India and the US. Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his US visit in September 2014, India, on 22 June 2014 ratified the Additional Protocol signed (on 15 March 2009) with the IAEA, signalling its intention to bring the deal to closure so that nuclear commerce with the US could commence. Between September 2014 and the visit of US President Barack Obama as the chief guest on India Republic Day on 26 January 2015, ‘experts, legal and nuclear, from both countries sat down and worked out an understanding (on India’s Nuclear Liability Law),’ as the US ambassador in India Richard Verma put it. It is another matter whether it would be acceptable to the business community in both countries.
Notwithstanding epithets like ‘natural allies’ used by Vajpayee for Indo-US ties, ‘strategic partnership’ cited by Manmohan Singh and the recent ‘strategic plus partnership’ by US ambassador in India, Richard Verma, the spectre of mutual distrust has not gone away. Instead of a gradual mutual understanding, which is what the NSSP was about, the Indo-US nuclear deal took the big leap into the unknown.