US-India nuclear diplomacy

Daily Times, July 29, 2005
CONTROVERSY:Bush starts to get it right on India’s nuclear status - Jonathan Power

The new policy has all the advantages of jettisoning hypocrisy. The next step, which logically should grow from it, would be to revise the Non-Proliferation Treaty to make India formally one of the established nuclear powers, and thus gain India’s membership of the Treaty

The critics of President George W Bush’s new nuclear deal with India have got it back to front. They appear to have no understanding of the history of US-Indian nuclear relations. They draw their pessimistic and sanctimonious conclusions about how this new policy of relaxing the supply of advanced nuclear materials to India will further undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as if no water had ever flowed under the bridge.

Let’s go back to the head of that river.

The first mistake in dealing with India was for President Richard Nixon to make it unambiguously clear in the early days of his opening-to-China policy that a major reason for taking China seriously was China’s possession of the bomb. The second mistake was the famous Nixon-Kissinger “tilt” towards Pakistan during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. It was at that time that the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, gave the go ahead to India’s scientists to develop a nuclear device. The third mistake was to say nothing, yes nothing, when India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974. In the West only the UK and Canada made a public criticism.

Then under the earnest, but simplistic, non-proliferation, diplomacy of President Jimmy Carter, a once in a lifetime opportunity to neutralise India’s still fledgling pro-bomb policy was missed. The issue was whether, in the light of India’s ongoing secret nuclear research, the US should continue to supply enriched uranium to India’s reactor in Tarapur. Washington announced it would not do so any longer, unless India signed a safeguard agreement on the use of spent fuel. But at the same time, in a sharp contradiction, Washington was refusing to criticise France even though Paris was attempting to sell nuclear reactors to China, which was then not only a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but a fully armed nuclear weapons power as well.

What should the US have done? Carter was negotiating with the most pacific prime minister India has ever had, Morarji Desai, a convinced Gandhian. Carter should have made his first approach to India before the restrictively worded 1987 Non-Proliferation Act landed on his desk. He should have told Desai that the US understood, given previous American attitudes, why it was an Indian point of principle not to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Because it was both discriminatory and hypocritical, with its unfulfilled pledge for the already nuclear armed powers to reduce their stockpiles in return for the have-nots not entering the nuclear arms business.)

Carter should have also made it clear that the question of supplies of enriched uranium to Tarapur was not an issue since the Indian government, at that moment, had no intention of building nuclear weapons. (Ironically, 25 years later, US and EU policy towards Iran is to offer it enriched uranium if it forswears the nuclear bomb option.)

If this approach had been coupled with more rapid US progress on strategic nuclear arms reductions with the Soviet Union and adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Desai might have been swung over. He would have had the political muscle to do what he really wanted to do — which was to override New Delhi’s nuclear lobby once and for all. Desai then might not only have committed his country to a policy of international inspection but he may well have been prepared to make a formal promise to forgo nuclear weapons. (Although later, as an extra incentive, the US would also have had to forgo its post-Soviet invasion of Afghanistan policy of turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear bomb research.)

But Carter, unable to make the intellectual leap and also feeling his hands were tied by a hard line Congress, persisted with the policy of sanctioning India’s nuclear industry. The blunderbuss triumphed over a more sophisticated diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, not only did a proud India go its own way into nuclear self-sufficiency, it was finally to end up in the hands of the nuclear hawks of the right wing Hindu-nationalist government which decided in 1998 to unveil India’s nuclear bomb.

India was lost on the issue seven years ago. Bush is merely recognising the obvious, which his predecessor had refused to do. The new policy has all the advantages of jettisoning hypocrisy. The next step, which logically should grow from it, would be to revise the Non-Proliferation Treaty to make India formally one of the established nuclear powers, and thus gain India’s membership of the Treaty. Then India’s immense diplomatic energies could be harnessed to the battle of ensuring that other countries are not pushed towards the bomb by the double standards of the nuclear-haves.

The writer is a leading columnist on international affairs, human rights and peace issues. He syndicates his columns with some 50 papers around the world

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