The debate over the nuclear deal negotiated by the Bush Administration and the government of India is too narrow. If other alternatives are not explored, there is a risk that Asia will experience a dangerous and costly build up of nuclear arsenals – a nuclear bubble much more dangerous than housing or stock market bubbles.
The debate in Washington is between nonproliferation specialists and grand strategists.
The specialists say that the United States is abandoning international nonproliferation standards in return for India putting two-thirds of its nuclear reactors under international monitoring and agreeing to enforce nonproliferation laws that all responsible actors should follow anyway. Rewarding nuclear-armed India for accepting lower nonproliferation standards than countries that signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will make it tougher to motivate the rest of the world to keep countries like Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Korea or Japan from hedging their nuclear bets by exploiting vagaries in nonproliferation rules.
The Bush Administration cares more about big power relations. It believes that nonproliferation rules are too hard to enforce and cannot be relied upon. Moreover, if nonproliferation rules will limit U.S. weapons programs, they are unhelpful. For them, it is more important to contain China’s potential and desire to exert its growing powers in ways that challenge U.S. interests. If India can be persuaded to stand firmly with the United States, then China’s opportunity to shape Asia’s future will be limited.
It is not self-evident whether nonproliferation or U.S.-Indian cooperation in balancing China is more important. Indeed, the more interesting question is, Why are these the only choices? Aren’t there options that could better serve both nonproliferation and geostrategic interests?
The current options ignore the risks of building up nuclear arsenals. Both sides in the current debate dismiss the possibility that China, India, and Pakistan should or could be induced not to build up their nuclear arsenals.
If China were to forego a major increase in its nuclear arsenal, then India would not feel the need to produce more plutonium or highly enriched uranium for bombs. Pakistan would likely follow along with such constraints if China and India were, with U.S. encouragement. India could then put almost all of its nuclear facilities under safeguards, which would buttress rather than erode the global nonproliferation regime. International partners could sell India nuclear fuel without thereby augmenting India’s nuclear weapon arsenal.
Pursuing this objective would earn the U.S. global credibility it badly needs to lead the struggle against proliferation in Iran and elsewhere. If the president could announce to the world that, “As of today, no country is making additional nuclear weapons, none is adding to the global glut of weapons plutonium and highly-enriched uranium,” it would be much easier to rally all countries to prevent Iran, North Korea, or other challengers from producing materials that could be used in nuclear weapons.
To make this objective a reality, China, India and Pakistan are key.(Israel most likely would go along, strengthening prospects of nonproliferation in the Middle East).
But China will not cut short the expansion of its nuclear arsenal if the U.S. does not reassure Beijing. U.S. plans to weaponize space and to develop the capability to pre-emptively destroy China’s nuclear forces and command-and-control infrastructure intensify China’s nuclear requirements. Faced with such a scenario, China will not limit the expansion and modernization of its nuclear arsenal, which means that India will not agree to limit its potential nuclear bomb production.
U.S. officials have never even tried to discuss with Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad whether a nuclear arms build up can be avoided. Instead, they have endorsed a bilateral deal with India that pushes in the opposite direction, knowing that China will then seek to reciprocate by offering nuclear cooperation with Pakistan to keep up.
Perhaps an Asian nuclear arms competition cannot be avoided, but Congress should not allow the U.S. to fuel one before the Administration has tried. The Administration should be required to report to Congress on the conditions under which China, Pakistan and India would agree to join the U.S., Russia, France and the United Kingdom who have already publicly undertaken moratoria on producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
To make such an assessment, the U.S. will have to talk with these countries about the issue. Because Congress would dismiss the interests of any country making far-fetched demands, each would have an incentive to take the issue of a global moratorium seriously. India might discount Chinese willingness to declare a moratorium, by saying that China would still retain a stockpile of fissile material that can be converted to new weapons. Pakistan might say the same of India. From this could emerge the first serious discussion of the pros and cons of three-way regional nuclear constraints. In any case, Congress and the world would gain a clearer picture of the potential consequences the proposed nuclear deal with India.
If the U.S. government wants Asian countries to add to their nuclear arsenals it should say so; otherwise, Washington should try harder to get others to join it in ending production of bomb fuel.