Indo-US Nuclear Deal On Track, But Critics Unhappy

July 7, 2008 - 7:17 PM

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - A historic bill passed by Congress, allowing the United States to cooperate with India in the civilian nuclear field, has been mostly welcomed in India, although a nationalist opposition party wants the deal abandoned, saying it compromises the country's independence.

Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said the deal, under which the U.S. will sell nuclear technology to India, recognizes India's unique and responsible role in international nuclear affairs.

Government sources in Delhi said the bill, which passed the Senate early Saturday after an earlier vote in the House of Representatives, contained "a few minor irritants" but otherwise took Indian expectations and concerns into account.

For the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, the bill imposes "rigorous" obligations on India, fails to guarantee an uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel for India's civilian reactors, and makes Delhi's nuclear weapons program "subject to intrusive U.S. scrutiny."

The bill also effectively bans future nuclear tests, said the party, which led the government until 2004.

The BJP's Yashwant Sinha told a news conference Sunday the party wanted a complete statement on the issue from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh within two days.

Foreign policy experts called President Bush's July 2005 offer of a nuclear cooperation agreement with Singh a highly significant step, given the increasingly important role India is expected to play in the region as a counterweight to China.

The offer essentially set aside India's 1998 nuclear tests - which prompted Western sanctions - as an issue between the two democracies, and held out the possibility that, through cooperation with the U.S., India would be able to expand its nuclear energy sector to help drive its rapidly-growing economy.

India currently obtains some three percent of its energy needs from nuclear reactors, but would like to increase that to one-quarter.

U.S. lawmakers wanted India, which wields considerable influence in the developing world, to cooperate with international efforts to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Although India has voted in support of the Western stance on Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Delhi also objected to any direct linkage between the Iran issue and nuclear cooperation with the U.S.

The legislation passed in the end does not require India to cooperate against Iran, but it does seek India's cooperation in "containing Iran's nuclear program" and requires the U.S. president to report on whether India is doing so.

U.S. undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns spent Friday morning in the Indian capital stressing that the U.S. had no intention "to infringe on India's foreign policy."

Professor Ramakant, former dean of South Asian Studies Center at Rajasthan University, said the civilian nuclear deal was "just reward for India's responsible behavior as a nuclear power."

Ramakant said he believed the U.S. government had decided to supply nuclear fuel to India, overturning decades of U.S. anti-proliferation policy, because of the "gigantic market presented to U.S. businesses" by India, but also in a bid to use India as a buffer against China.

The U.S.- India Business Council lobbied individual senators hard in favor of the bill.

Council president Ron Somers said the legislation laid "the foundation for major trade and investment opportunities in India for U.S. companies" and would create nearly 27,000 high-quality jobs each year in the U.S. nuclear industry alone, for the next 10 years.

The nuclear cooperation deal has also spurred moves towards huge Indo-U.S. defense agreements and collaboration in ballistic missile defense development.

Some non-proliferation critics argue that the extra American nuclear fuel for the civilian program could free India's domestic uranium for use in its weapons program.

But for many supporters of the agreement, countering a rising China is a key issue in the shift in the bilateral Indo-U.S. relationship.

Indian political analyst Siddharth Varadarajan argued that if the U.S. did not help India in the civilian nuclear field, or if it insisted that India "cap or scrap its nuclear weapons," that would be tantamount to strengthening China in the emerging balance of power in Asia.

It would not only undermine Indian security but also U.S. interests in Asia in the face of the prospective increase in Chinese power over the long term, he said.

Official Chinese media late last week criticized the deal, saying it smacked of "double-standards" in the global efforts to rein in nuclear proliferation.

Last month External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee expressed confidence that Beijing would not stand in India's way in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-nation body formed to control the export of materials that have nuclear applications, and which will have to approve the Indo-U.S. agreement.

China is thought unlikely to obstruct the deal as it has itself supplied enriched uranium fuel and other nuclear materials to India in the past.

See Earlier Story:
India's Vote Against Iran Seen as Important Shift (Sept. 27, 2005)


Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.