Journalist | Writer | Analyst
13 July 2009
A new challenge on the nuclear front
The G8 decision on enrichment and reprocessing-related trade is a wake-up call for the Indian establishment
It is one thing to try and spin one’s way out of domestic criticism but if the Manmohan Singh government really believes the recent G8 ban on sensitive nuclear technology sales is no big deal then the situation is much more alarming than I first thought.
Two weeks before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s scheduled arrival date in New Delhi, the State Department spokesman said that the U.S. hoped India would be in a position to identify the physical sites where American companies will get to locate their multi-billion dollar nuclear reactors. The final reprocessing arrangements and procedures have yet to be negotiated but the U.S. is keen to mark its territory. Yet, the Indian government baulks from publicly expressing its concern about the manner in which Washington is going about unilaterally seeking to alter the terms of the July 2005 Indo-U.S. agreement under which those reactors will be sold to us in the first place.
Not only that, senior officials who should know better have sought to downplay the significance of last week’s G8 statement on nonproliferation. When reporters sought a government reaction on the interim ban the eight countries announced on enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) items and technology sales to India, Pakistan and Israel, what they got were comforting but spurious arguments.
Prior to September 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group — the 45-nation cartel of nuclear exporters — had a blanket ban on all nuclear sales to these three countries, currently the only ones still outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. But on September 4, 2008, the NSG agreed to the U.S. proposal to exempt India from this ban. This U.S. proposal was part of the full civil nuclear energy cooperation commitments the White House made in exchange for getting India to agree to separate its military and civilian nuclear programmes and place the latter under international safeguards.
The letter and spirit of the July 2005 joint statement has since been reflected in three legally binding texts — the Indo-U.S. bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement (the ‘123 agreement’), India’s safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the NSG decision of 2008, all of which reflected a carefully-crafted balance of rights and obligations.
Even though the July 2005 agreement spoke of “full civil nuclear cooperation,” the U.S. was never keen to allow India access to sensitive nuclear items and technology. After a series of tough exchanges, however, Indian negotiators were able to secure restrictive but enabling language on ENR in the 123 agreement and Hyde Act, the U.S. domestic law to which bilateral nuclear commerce is wedded. The battle resumed in the run up to the NSG meetings last year but in the end India secured a clean exemption allowing it safeguarded access to every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle. This clean exemption has now been negated by the U.S.-instigated G8 ban on ENR. As have the restrictive but enabling clauses of the Hyde Act and the 123 agreement, neither of which spoke of NPT adherence as a condition of supply.
The government needs to realise the problem will not go away just because one pretends it does not exist. Nor will it get what it wants internationally by remaining silent in the hope that some benign invisible hand will deliver India what it wants. The kind of unilateralism and reversibility Washington has pushed at L’Aquila and is pushing in the NSG goes against the letter and spirit of the Indo-U.S. agreement. India should have strongly pressed its case last year itself, when the Bush administration publicly announced its intention of seeking NPT conditionality for ENR sales. It should have told the U.S. this was not acceptable. And it should have worked with NSG members like Russia, France, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Turkey and Kazakhstan who have either strong commercial interests in nuclear commerce with India or are opposed to tighter ENR rules for their own specific reasons. None of this was done. In May 2009, the NSG troika visited New Delhi for consultations. One wonders how vigorously India’s views on the matter were put across.
After falling asleep at the wheel, official sources have begun floating a number of explanations for why there is no need for the country to be unduly concerned about what has happened at the G8. Let us consider each one in turn.
* The general U.S. push towards restricting ENR sales move was not unexpected.
Well, if it was not unexpected, the country would like to know what was done to deal with these well advertised American intentions. It is not as if India did not successfully handle rollback attempts during the negotiations from 2005 to 2008.
* India is not a part of G8 and could not have known about the contents of the declaration in advance.
India has strong friendships with several G8 countries, including some without a strong attachment to the U.S. position. Given Washington’s declared intention of getting the NSG to freeze India out of fuel cycle trade and the fact that the G8 tends to form a ginger group within the NSG whenever new rules are discussed, it should have been obvious that the matter would come up in L’Aquila. Some proactive lobbying with France or Russia might have ensured a less damaging decision.
* G8 decisions are not necessarily binding.
G8 statements promising tender, loving care for Africa may not be binding but the group takes its nonproliferation decisions extremely seriously.
* The G8 has been discussing tighter ENR rules since 2004. India is not a specific target.
True, but the July 2005 agreement was premised on a break with the world as it was up to 2004, with only two categories of states: NPT and non-NPT. First the U.S., and then the NSG, acknowledged that India could not be clubbed together with the two remaining non-NPT states. Its nonproliferation record, strategic weight, economic heft and political responsibility meant the world was better off with India inside the ‘regime’ than outside. L’Aquila has revived the notion of India being just another outlier. That is why the G8 Nonproliferation Statement actually begins with an explicit call for countries not party to the NPT to “accede without delay”. Not only was such a call not made at the Toyako summit last year but the G8 actually endorsed the need for a “more robust approach to civil nuclear cooperation with India.”
* India is only bound by what it has agreed with the NSG.
True, but the NSG is on the verge of changing its guidelines and India has also pledged to accept and abide by any changes. The time to actively engage is now, when the new rules are being debated, and not after they are adopted.
* India needs time to study the NSG proposal that the G8 has adopted before it jumps to conclusions.
When the NSG discussed the issue of new rules for ENR trade in November, consensus was established on a broad range of criteria even as some proposals — like the requirement that a state adhere to the Additional Protocol before it can buy ENR equipment — remained “bracketed.” The G8 has decided to implement the non-bracketed “clean text” as an interim measure. With the NSG consisting of 45 countries, it would be astonishing if India did not already know what was in this “clean text.”
L’Aquila is an unpleasant wake-up call, a reminder to India that it must remain vigilant as it moves forward to implement its agreements on civil nuclear cooperation with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Let us not pretend that a rollback on ENR isn’t being attempted. Let us acknowledge it and find ways to deal with the challenge. Though the rollback attempt began during the Bush administration, the new administration is clearly committed to it.
The time for resting on the laurels of last year’s victory at the NSG has long ended.