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The Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement will raise the financial and political costs of the Indian nuclear weapons programme but it does not impose a legal bar on the production of fissile material or the testing of nuclear explosive devices by India.
10 July 2006
The nuclear deal and ‘minimum deterrence’
BY NOW, the fact that the United States’ offer of civil nuclear cooperation carries hidden political costs is well accepted within and outside the Indian foreign policy establishment. But if the political costs are tangible and have already begun to accumulate, what of the charge made by a section of the Indian strategic community — and echoed by the Bharatiya Janata Party — that the nuclear deal will compromise the “credibility” of India’s “minimum nuclear deterrence?”
Right from day one, the Indian side has insisted the July 18, 2005, agreement is about energy and not arms control. For the Americans too, the deal is primarily about fashioning India’s energy choices. But there is also a non-proliferation impulse, as reflected in the reference to India’s unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapon testing in the joint statement issued that day. Accepting this without extracting a reciprocal reference to the United States’ own moratorium was a serious error of tactics and principle. Today, it is this commitment that is proving the most difficult to work around as India resists U.S. efforts to convert its voluntary no-testing pledge into something more legally binding. Specifically, the U.S. is trying to tie the assurances of perpetual nuclear fuel supply — as envisaged by the Indian nuclear separation plan — into a “no nuclear testing” condition. These clauses form part of the “bracketed” portion of the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (the so-called `123 Agreement’) currently being negotiated by the two sides.
No fissile material cut-off
As matters stand, however, will the India-U.S. agreement lead to a cap or constraint on India’s nuclear weapons arsenal in either quantitative or qualitative terms? In the `statement of U.S. policy’ section, the House of Representatives Bill on nuclear cooperation says the U.S. should seek to achieve a moratorium on fissile material production by India, Pakistan, and China and promote the “reduction and eventual elimination” of nuclear weapons in South Asia. In the Senate version, the President is expected to report annually to Congress about U.S. efforts to get India and Pakistan to secure, cap, and reduce their fissile material stockpiles.
While this may be U.S. policy, there is nothing in any agreement India has signed that commits it to cap or reduce its weapons-grade fissile material stockpiles. Of course, Washington may cite its domestic legal obligations as a reason to pressure India on this point but New Delhi will itself be under no compulsion to obey. Truth to tell, much will depend on how the negotiations for the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) proceed at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. If the U.S. is rapidly able to establish a consensus around its draft FMCT, India will find it harder to resist agreeing to an end to fissile material production. But if the American ploy of blackmailing the CD into accepting an FMCT by the end of this year fails — which it is likely to, since most countries want parallel progress on the proposed treaty preventing an arms race in outer space — then India would be off the hook.
If there is no constraint on the quantitative enhancement of India’s nuclear weapons, what about qualitative “improvements?” The Senate Bill authorising nuclear commerce with India is explicit that the waiver of existing prohibitions for India will “cease to be effective” if India “detonate[s] a nuclear explosive device” after the Act comes into force. It is reasonable to assume the NSG rule change for India will also become null and void if India conducts an explosive test.
While there are good reasons for India not to test again, do these clauses amount to the decision being pushed down the country’s throat, that too by a state that itself refuses to be bound by any legal no-test covenant? Here, three points are of relevance. First, India has already “bilateralised” its unilateral moratorium in a joint statement with Pakistan issued during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore as Prime Minister in 1999. Any unilateral India test, therefore, would violate that agreement to begin with. Secondly, sub-critical tests and computer simulations of the kind the U.S. conducts in order to validate weapon designs would not attract any penalty. Thirdly, there would, in any case, still be no legal obligation on India not to conduct an explosive test.
Cost of a test
In the unlikely event of a situation arising where the government of the day felt obliged to abandon the moratorium on testing, it would be free to do so. Of course, the U.S. and the NSG would end their nuclear cooperation with India. Provided India were able to withdraw its civilian facilities from the “in perpetuity” IAEA safeguards, the clock, in effect, would be turned back to the status quo ante of July 2005. If withdrawal were not possible, however, even under some kind of force majeure clause, then a decision to test would not be costless.
India has agreed to in-perpetuity safeguards for its indigenous civilian nuclear facilities in exchange for U.S. assurances of perpetual fuel supply for all reactors that go under safeguards. It is hard to imagine a scenario where such assurances could withstand the heat of an Indian nuclear test. Thus, the greater the Indian dependence on imported safeguarded reactors for its electricity grid, the greater would be the costs associated with the suspension of nuclear cooperation that would inevitably follow any nuclear test. In the long run, therefore, while there would be no legal bar, the Indian Government would find the collateral economic costs associated with a nuclear test to be quite high. This is not to say that the absence of such a deal would make a fresh Indian test costless under current world conditions. That is precisely why the erstwhile Vajpayee Government sensibly announced a unilateral moratorium immediately after the tests it conducted at Pokhran-II in 1998.
There is another sense in which the nuclear deal will force greater attentiveness to costs as far as nuclear weapons is concerned. The fact that the Indian nuclear weapons programme has been embedded in the civilian one has given successive governments the “luxury” of building weapons without being unduly worried about the financial or opportunity costs. While the nuclear deal leaves intact the government’s prerogative to accumulate fissile material and build bombs and even test them, it will, presumably, force policymakers to take into account the associated costs. To the extent that this has a rational effect on the size and structure of the country’s nuclear weapons programme, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
There is, however, one last issue that needs serious consideration. The U.S. insistence on dictating the contours of the Indian separation plan and on in-perpetuity safeguards has led to a binary distinction between `civilian’ and `military,’ which runs the risk of sending wrong signals to the outside world.
Indian scientists wanted the fast-breeder programme out of safeguards not so much because they want to use it to build bombs but because they feared the effect inspections would have on civilian research. Under the terms of the India-U.S. deal, these facilities — and any others the Government wants — can be kept away from safeguards but only by being explicitly designated as non-civilian. Thus, a purely civilian facility that the Government may not want to place under in-perpetuity safeguards for a variety of “peaceful” reasons will be seen by the rest of the world — and by Pakistan and China, in particular — as military. In turn, this may trigger the construction of military nuclear facilities in those countries as they strive to “neutralise” this wrongly perceived Indian advantage. Such signalling problems could have been avoided if India had managed — as was earlier promised — to secure exactly the same rights and obligations as other nuclear weapons states, “nothing more, nothing less.”
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