Bush Sojourn and Indo-US Nuclear Deal

Animesh Roul

Wrapping up his three-day India sojourn, US President George W. Bush reiterated that the relationship between India and the United States was 'closer than ever before' and India is a natural ally for the US. Ally or not, after months of intense deliberations and days of hard bargaining, India and the US have inked a landmark civilian nuclear cooperation agreement in New Delhi in early March which allows India to access U.S. nuclear fuel and technology to meet its growing energy requirements. The agreement was largely embedded in the joint statement issued by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US president George W Bush in July last year in Washington.

Under the reached agreement India is not going to put its military nuclear programme and fast breeder reactors (FBRs) to international safeguards and agreed to open 14 of its 22 nuclear reactors to international safeguards. India has been reluctant from the beginning to place some of its civilian reactors, such as the plutonium-based fast breeder system, under international scrutiny amid fears it could interfere with India's nuclear weapons program.

Till the end, India remained firm in the decision of what facilities to be identified as civilian or military and it was agreed upon that the identifications would be made by India alone, and not by anybody else. In other words, the size of India’s minimum nuclear deterrent remains its own prerogative under the agreement. At the same time India retains the right to classify its future reactors as civilian or military.

However, the last leg of the agreement yet to be clinched, as the agreement necessitated an approval by the U.S. Congress. Then it would authorize India to trade nuclear technology with the US along with other countries if the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) regime modifies existing rules to let India trade with the member countries. President Bush has promised that the Washington administration would approach the 45-nation NSG which largely determines international trade in nuclear material, equipment and technologies and has been concerned with reducing nuclear proliferation by controlling the export and re-transfer of materials, for adjusting its guidelines.

Though this ambitious agreement for now, overcome all the doubts rounding the corner, it is slated to face the immediate hurdle in the US House of Congress where it needs approval for a change in the US law.

Experts opine that the Congressional battle, which is looming large on the horizon will likely to pit the non-proliferation lobby and the powerful India lobby. The deal has evoked a mixed reaction among the US Congressmen, and nuclear non-proliferation experts, saying it weakens international safeguards against nuclear proliferation.

While welcoming the Indo-US bilateral cooperation, octogenarian Henry Hyde, chairman of the International Relations Committee (IRC) of the House of Representatives said: "It is the responsibility of IRC to thoroughly examine the specific provisions of the agreement and its potential consequences for US interests and those of the international community." Ed Markey, a critic of the deal termed it as a "historic nuclear failure”, and added that it endangers US national security.

While it becomes obvious that the Bush administration will pursue every possible way to convince the Congress for the necessary changes in law for the agreement to be effected, at the same time, the deal has been facing stiff oppositions from anti-proliferation groups and non-proliferation experts.

However, the success and failure of the Bush’s first ever tour notwithstanding, Bush’s India visit marked by protests and sporadic violence mostly perpetrated by Left parties and Muslim organizations such as Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in New Delhi and elsewhere. The coveted deal has also faced a stiff opposition in the domestic circuit. Many political parties came on strongly on the deal terming it as ‘prejudicial to national interests’ and designed to weaken India’s nuclear options by making the country dependent on the US for all initiatives in application of nuclear energy.

Prior to the visit of US President, the deal had faced a hostile scientific community in India. Many nuclear scientists including India’s Atomic Energy Commission chief Anil Kakodkar aired his reservation against the move to place fast breeder reactors under IAEA safeguards and resisted Washington’s call of a distinct separation of civilian and military programmes.

India’s giant northern neighbour China expressed caution over the deal though appreciated New Delhi’s energy needs. China has been cautious to support the deal in the NSG, which ultimately facilitate India’s nuclear trading with other countries. While insisting the deal must meet global non-proliferation regulations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said: “cooperation must conform to the requirements and provisions of the international non-proliferation regime (NPT) and the obligations undertaken by all countries.” Neighbouring Pakistan though didn’t object the deal, demands similar arrangement from Washington administration. However, the request was turned down, as there were "concerns" over Pakistan's proliferation record.

Author Note
Animesh Roul, Research Fellow, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi