On July 18, 2005, US President George W.Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a landmark agreement on civil nuclear cooperation that, if implemented as intended, would mark the end of what Jaswant Singh, the former foreign affairs minister, once famously called “nuclear apartheid” against India.This agreement, which offered New Delhi comprehensive access to civilian nuclear technology in exchange for, among other things, voluntarily bringing its power reactors and other civilian nuclear facilities under safeguards, sparked serious controversy in the US. The non-proliferation community in Washington D.C. and elsewhere vehemently criticised the President’s initiative because it turned over 30 years of established American policy towards India on its head. This opposition, however, is not surprising because Bush’s bold initiative topples longstanding proliferation orthodoxy and takes the international nuclear regime in new, as yet uncharted, directions.
What is astonishing, however, is the intense criticism emerging from India, particularly from leaders of the BJP who when they were in power had made proposals embodying identical principles to those underlying the current agreement. Irrespective of the details, the A.B. Vajpayee government’s overtures to the US were all premised on the notion that India’s strategic programme could be separated from its civilian nuclear enterprises and various sub-sets of the latter put under safeguards in exchange for access to international nuclear commerce. Unfortunately, the then NDA government put too little on the table and asked for too much in return. The current UPA Government, in contrast, put much on the table, only to gain infinitely more.
Recent developments in America, of course, made a world of difference to consummating this outcome. It was Vajpayee’s singular misfortune that he did not have interlocutors possessed of the strategic vision and political courage that characterises the current leadership in the State Department. Were it not for the presence of Counsellor Philip Zelikow, who championed this initiative within the government, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who shouldered much of the early negotiations with India, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice herself, who not only oversaw the agreement on behalf of the President but also for a few critical hours became the “action officer” actually negotiating its text with Foreign Minister K. Natwar Singh (whose contribution ultimately was indispensable), the now historic accord would never have materialised. It was, therefore, partly an accident of history that this understanding was reached now and not in Bush’s first term—and the BJP, especially in the persons ofVajpayee and Brajesh Mishra, can take full credit for having initiated a process that only the fates decreed would be brought to completion after their departure from office.
A careful reading of the Joint Statement should leave no one in any doubt that this agreement is wholly beneficial to India—in fact, American critics have argued that it is more advantageous to New Delhi than it is to Washington or to the international nonproliferation regime. Yet, three broad criticisms constantly recur in the Indian debate, which must be addressed to set the record straight. The first indictment holds that the agreement between Bush and Singh is worthless because it is asymmetrical: it records only American promises in exchange for what are binding Indian commitments.This charge is utterly mistaken. The asymmetrical character of the mutual obligations noted in the Joint Statement is owed entirely to differences in the constitutional structures of the two contracting governments. Unlike India, where the executive has the prerogative to sign any international agreement without further reference to the legislature—because it derives its power from the majority it enjoys in that body—the President of the United States enjoys only a limited authority. Thanks to the separation of powers defined in the Constitution, the President can in this instance only promise to beseech Congress to amend the relevant laws, not guarantee that the legislative branch will in fact do so. This structural difference has been accommodated in the Joint Statement by specifying that India would reciprocally” —not unilaterally—fulfill its commitments in a coordinated fashion, with a joint working group monitoring the actions to be undertaken in this regard. As evidence that the President means business in this matter, however, the Administration has lost no time by already beginning preliminary consultations on the Hill, and the House International Relations Committee has in fact already scheduled the first hearings by Administration witnesses for early September.
The second criticism is more recondite and centers on the assertion that the separation of India’s civilian and military facilities would impact its ability to produce the requisite weapons-grade fissile materials and tritium. The truth of this assertion, obviously, cannot be evaluated without knowing the desired size of India's nuclear deterrent. The Government, however, has asserted—and the Department of Atomic Energy leadership concurs—that the country will have sufficient capacity to produce all the materials required for India’s nuclear weapons through the facilities that will be designated as part of the military programme. The same conclusion holds a fortiori for tritium production: this isotope, at any rate, is required only in gram quantities per weapon and its production in India historically has suffered less from the availability of irradiation spaces in research reactors than other constraints. Given the kind of minimal deterrent Indian policymakers appear to have in mind currently, there is no reason why the production of strategic materials ought to suffer if India’s existing (and future) research reactors and associated facilities are operated at high capacity factors; they are divested of their current civilian workload; and, if the appropriate maintenance and life-extension programmes are implemented.
The third criticism of the agreement is that separation of the Indian nuclear establishment into distinct civilian and military estates will be difficult, costly, and untenable. Of the three critiques circulating in the Indian debate, only this argument has significant merit. Quarantining India’s modest military endeavours from what is still overwhelmingly
a civilian nuclear programme will no doubt be difficult—perhaps even costly—but it is not impossible. The chief obstacle here is not India’s inability to sequester physical facilities, though in a few cases this may be an issue, but rather dividing organisations and personnel that hitherto were employed seamlessly in both civilian and strategic pursuits. Because of the challenges involved here, the Statement emphasises that the identification and separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes in India will not occur precipitously, but “in a phased manner.” There is no doubt that even with this caveat, such a rigid separation—in a manner done only in the UK today—will impose burdens on India. But, that is not what is at issue. What is at issue is whether India comes out ahead, as a result of making good on what are demanding commitments.
On this fundamental question, there can be no doubt that the Indian critics of the Bush-Singh agreement are entirely mistaken. For starters, the burdens of separation would pale into insignificance if, as a result of foregoing this agreement, New Delhi were to be denied in perpetuity the natural uranium necessary to fuel its pressurised heavy water reactors. Most Indian critics fail to appreciate how perilous their country’s condition currently is with respect to nuclear fuel supplies. If India’s reactors cannot secure new sources of natural uranium, their capacity to uninterruptedly produce nuclear power—let alone weapons-grade plutonium—would suffer greatly, with grave consequences not only for India’s economic growth but also for the future of the peaceful and military dimensions of the nuclear programme itself. Converting pressurised heavy water reactors to run mixed oxide fuels is not as simple as the pundits assert—or else India would not have pursued a complex three-stage plan to secure nuclear autonomy. Further, the second stage facilities that would allow India to burn plutonium with depleted uranium or thorium blankets to produce U233 are nowhere near commercial readiness.
Consequently, the question of how difficult separating military from civilian facilities would be must be seen against the alternative of India being permanently denied all access to nuclear fuel, if such separation is eschewed as the price for continued autarky. Mercifully, for India, and its continued economic growth, quest for energy independence and pursuit of strategic autonomy, Singh made the right choice in Washington. As did President Bush.