US-India deal clouds nuclear summit


By Peter J Brown

For India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was on Sunday tapped by US President Barack Obama for his first major one-on-one meeting at the sidelines of this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, much has changed since his visit to the US capital last November.

The two-day summit, which is focusing on making atomic sites and materials safer from terrorists, comes after last week’s release of the latest US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the signing in Prague of the US-Russia START nuclear arms control treaty. In May, there is also the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

There are sub-plots to the US-India engagement, including the continuing dispute over Indian access to David Headley, the Mumbai terror suspect being tried in the US, relations with Pakistan and the situation in Afghanistan. Still, Singh’s superb salesmanship is once again on display thanks to the US announcement in late March of a nuclear reprocessing agreement with India.

The deal will allow India to acquire spent nuclear fuel from the US, and as a result, places India in an elite group along with Japan and several European nations.

“At a time when overall relations have been under something of a cloud, the reprocessing agreement, and its timely completion, suggests that a bipartisan commitment at the highest levels of the US government on the single most consequential issue area in bilateral relations for New Delhi – high-technology trade – remains intact,” said Sourabh Gupta, senior research associate at Samuels International Associates in Washington, DC.

This was billed as one of the expected outcomes of the broad “123 Agreement” – the name commonly used for the 2008 civilian US-India nuclear deal officially known as the US-India Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. But it has faced a barrage of criticism especially from domestic opponents in the US.

Unlike the new START treaty between Russia and the US, and the recent release of the NPR, the US-India deal has not captured everyone’s attention as the curtain rises on the summit. Along with the summit’s focus on the threat of nuclear terrorism, Iran and North Korea – though not officially on the agenda – are likely to feature heavily in Obama’s talks with leaders.

In discussions with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama is likely try to cement China’s commitment to pressuring Iran over its nuclear program through sanctions, as well as cool recent Sino-US tensions. The summit of 47 nations in Washington comes ahead of an alternative international nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran on April 17-18.

China has kept silent on the US-India nuclear reprocessing deal. The visit to China by India’s Foreign Minister S M Krishna a fortnight ago may be one reason. China also advocates the right of all nations to pursue civilian nuclear programs and the peaceful uses of nuclear power in general. China probably prefers to mask its displeasure, since China will sit down with India again at the latest of the increasingly important BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) summits, to be held in Brasilia on April 16.

“From the day this agreement passed muster at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in September 2008 – despite their non-constructive role in the NSG at the time, Beijing has known that this was a done deal,” said Gupta, referring the US-India nuclear reprocessing agreement. ”To their credit though, they have thereafter chosen to pursue their interest in somewhat stabilizing the political relationship with New Delhi, rather than publicly nurse their grievances about an arrangement that became the capstone of the US-India bilateral partnership.”

While Beijing would like the US and the international community to accord a similar set of civilian nuclear arrangements to Pakistan, that is not going to happen, Gupta said. ”And Beijing is not likely to facilitate such bilateral cooperation either to the extent that it calls into question its treaty and norm-based commitments to the international non-proliferation regime.”

On the other hand, China has taken the opportunity to send a strong signal both to India and the US via its critique of the NPR, which China’s views as deliberately distorting China’s nuclear intentions at time when the US’s strategy involves surrounding China with nations that have rapidly evolving nuclear capabilities of their own.

“It is publicly known that the US once had hundreds of nuclear warheads aimed at China. Even today, it has numerous naval vessels deployed carrying nuclear weapons that can be retrained on China swiftly,” said an editorial in China’s Global Times newspaper in early April. “In Asia, China is surrounded by countries that have signed nuclear pacts with the US. It is the US, not China, that should provide more transparency regarding its nuclear intentions.” [1]

The reference to “nuclear pacts” applies to both India and Japan equally.

“I wouldn’t be happy if I were [President Jintao], but China is also to blame for not blocking the original Nuclear Security Group waiver for India which was approved by consensus,” said Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “Still, I am not sure how much it will affect the tone of the summit, which is more focused officially on dealing with nuclear terrorism and, on the sidelines, on dealing with Iran.”

India walks away the clear winner here. The Obama-Singh meeting further reinforces the perception that the US wants to highlight its strong relationship with India no matter how strong this relationship might be at present, especially in India’s eyes.

“It is not the reprocessing capability right now that is the danger. India had sufficient capability to reprocess material in its existing unsafeguarded reactor facilities to build upon its stockpile,” said Pomper. “It is what the agreement says about the willingness of the US to stand up to India, particularly when it comes the possibility of an Indian nuclear test such as one that clearly shows ability to develop a two-stage thermonuclear weapon. That is what I would worry about if I were China.”

Pomper said the real problem with the deal is that it gives India a better deal in terms of reprocessing rights from the US than both Japan, which is a non-nuclear state, and Euratom, which is a mix of European nuclear and non-nuclear states.

“Not to mention those countries are closer allies to the US as well,” said Pomper. “Those deals laid out explicit criteria under which the US could suspend the agreement. The most important of which that is in Euratom’s [deal], for example, but is missing from the India deal is if the other party tests a nuclear device. This seems to open the door to further Indian nuclear tests. Also missing is a provision that it could be suspended in the case of a safeguards violation by Euratom and that was missing from this [agreement].”

Yes, there is a provision that if the agreement is suspended for more than six months, the US will have to enter into consultations on compensating India for its loss, too.

“For India, this is too good to be true, but US negotiators seem to have a congenital predisposition to giving away the store when they negotiate with India,” said Pomper.

India is not changing any of its previously held positions with respect to nuclear issues as a result of signing this agreement. It will not be signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty anytime soon, for example. The same is true for the NPT.

Gupta emphasizes that the assurances that India has given here are contained “mainly within the understandings that were reached during negotiation of the umbrella 123 Agreement.

“Though the 123 Agreement, as read, leaves a degree of ambiguity as to what are the criteria for termination (so as to make ratification, then, of the deal palatable in both legislatures), a private communication from the State Department to then-chairman Lantos of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January 2008 – and presumably known to the Indian side – explicitly lays out these criteria,” said Gupta. “They are: detonation of a nuclear weapon; material violation of the 123 Agreement; or violation or termination by New Delhi of its IAEA-negotiated safeguard agreement. These are assurances communicated by India.”

Furthermore, as part of the arrangement and procedures of the March 2010 agreement, New Delhi has provided written bilateral undertakings on end-user guarantees as well as non-diversion of nuclear materials.

“All overseas-supplied reactors, fuel, as well as facilities reprocessing such irradiated fuel are also to remain under IAEA safeguards. The [arrangement and procedures] also specifically list the number of facilities to be covered and the procedure for ‘consultation visits’ to such facilities by US officials,” said Gupta.

India is very firm and relishes engagement in tough negotiations. These US visits may occur only every five years, for example. India makes no excuses, and retains its consistent hard-edged approach both in bilateral and multilateral forums.

“As far as the CTBT is concerned, our position is very well-known. It has been reiterated on a number of occasions. We are committed to a voluntary moratorium on nuclear explosive testing. That remains our position. That has been very clearly articulated to all our friends and partners,” said India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao in response to a question at a press conference in New Delhi in early April.

India played trump card after trump card in this instance. The US

wanted only a single reprocessing facility in India, but India prevailed after citing the 123 Agreement, and in the end, multiple reprocessing facilities were approved.

“According to the final agreement, the reprocessing of spent fuel is meant to be done at two dedicated stand-alone facilities, with India allowed to make additions and modifications without going back to the US for additional negotiations,” said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “In fact, India could take up the lead in setting up an international reprocessing center in India for the whole region. Such a facility could possibly aid Iran in getting reprocessed spent nuclear fuel for its civilian energy programs.”

Iran will be a formal agenda item at the BRIC Summit for the first time. However, regardless of what does or does not happen in Brazil, the reprocessing agreement is behind schedule – and that it surfaced just before the Nuclear Security Summit is little more than a coincidence.

“The timing is not terrible, to start with. This agreement was meant to be concluded between India and the US way back in November 2009 during Singh’s visit to Washington. However, the negotiations went on for several more months,” said Rajagopalan. “It is up to the Obama administration to ably justify this to the Chinese leadership and the larger international community.”

At a time when jobs are scarce and unemployment is high, the economic ramifications of this deal are not to be overlooked.

“This important step is part of the great, win-win narrative of the US-India global partnership, affirming the commitment of our two countries to realize the full potential of our landmark civil nuclear agreement [in 2008],” said US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer. “These arrangements will help open the door for US firms in India’s rapidly expanding energy sector, creating thousands of jobs for the citizens of both our countries. We applaud India’s outstanding track record on non-proliferation issues, and we look forward to our continuing cooperation in this area.” [2]

In addition, the US has watched as Russian and European companies have become more active in the India nuclear energy sector. While the final passage of India’s Nuclear Liability Bill is still an obstacle, it is expected that differences will be ironed out.

“France and Russia have been more enthusiastic about working with India in its civilian nuclear energy sector. In fact, the India-Russian agreement signed during Prime Minister Putin’s visit envisages building up 16 nuclear reactors in three different locations, of which six are to be finished by 2017,” said Rajagopalan. “If the US does not get its act together, Russia and France will clearly have a head start. It is quite certain that commerce and big business are issues that the US will understand and accordingly tailor its policies. In fact, conclusion of this agreement facilitates early participation by US firms in India’s rapidly expanding civil nuclear market.”

The politics of job creation and politics of nuclear non-proliferation are two different things entirely. In this instance, India enjoys such a unique status that the lines are easily blurred when it comes to figuring out exactly where the US is heading.

“Reprocessing is the Holy Grail for non-proliferation advocates,” said Subrata Ghoshroy, senior associate in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ”It is not such a bad idea as long as the facilities are under safeguards. Under the NPT, each nation has a right to technology for peaceful development of nuclear energy. So, we cannot deny specific technologies to countries. Now, it is true that India is not an NPT member state. So, it does not have that right. But, the US has branded India a ‘responsible’ nuclear state. So, how can we deny them this technology?”

By the way, India considers Iran to be a “responsible state” too in this regard.

“When we talk about nuclear security and the threat of nuclear terrorism, we are referring to it in a global context. All responsible members of the world community, international community, have a stake in ensuring that we have comprehensive nuclear security,” said Rao in a recent news conference. “Iran is a country with which we have bilateral relations which go back many many years. It is a substantive relationship. We regard Iran as a very important country in the region and a country with which we have had, as I said, extensive bilateral relations and dialogue and cooperation. It is a responsible country.”

As for the Russians, they benefit enormously in India from the inability of the US to establish and maintain firm policies.

“The Russians are not hampered by the liability issues as the US firms are. Russians are also cheap and they have maintained a long-standing relationship with the Indian [nuclear sector], when the US had sanctions on India. So, they do have a leg up,” said Ghoshroy. “However, the Indians are interested in better technology, which the US could provide. The Russian presence continues to be significant, and as long as US equivocates perhaps of necessity between India and Pakistan, the Russian presence will continue.”

As for the sense that things will simpler and less complicated as time moves along, well, there is little chance of that happening. The highway to nuclear energy nirvana features numerous large potholes.

“The Chinese also want reprocessing technology from the US. Pakistan may try to raise it, but it has lot on its plate given the continued controversy around the Khan network. It also wants a nuclear deal like India’s,” said Ghoshroy. “The main topics [at the Nuclear Security Summit] will be, of course, Iran and North Korea, which the administration wants and Israeli nukes, that both Israel and Obama do not want to discuss. Well, Netanyahu nixed that plan by not coming. The administration will also have a lot to defend about its new NPR.”

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