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Outside View: Emasculating Nuclear India

By
M D NALAPAT, Oustside View Commentator

NEW DELHI, March 13 (UPI) -- There is zero doubt that India and the U.S. are natural partners. Steady migration to the U.S., the ever-denser interlinking of the hi-tech industry in both countries, and common threats from religious fundamentalism and political authoritarianism mandate that Washington and New Delhi forge an alliance that is as close as that between the U.S. and the UK.

However, the caveat to this is that such a partnership can only be on terms that are the same as what the U.S. accords to the U.K. In brief, the U.S. has first to accept India as a nuclear weapons state that deserves permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. Unfortunately, almost all the formulae trotted out by the "South Asia" brigade in U.S. think tanks and other centers of influence such as the State Department implicitly or otherwise seek to "engage" India on terms that would, if accepted, result in an emasculation of the world's most populous democracy.

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The proposed Nuclear Deal falls squarely in this category, and will, if sought to be implemented, push official U.S.-India relations back to the frost of the Cold War period.

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Indians love flattery, and often surrender substance in exchange for a verbal pat on the head. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, by education as well as by his experience in international institutions, is predisposed to uncritical acceptance of the standard Western worldview, which implicitly sees India as a juvenile power needing mother-henning, and definitely not mature enough to be trusted with grown-up implements such as nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems. This mistrust of the country's maturity -- despite New Delhi's impeccable non-proliferation record to date -- infuses the terms of the deal that has been agreed to by the Sonia Gandhi-led coalition government, hungry as always for formal acknowledgment of its improving status. Were the agreement to be implemented, India would almost immediately lose its chance to switch to the thorium cycle, and within 12 years would find its tiny arsenal of nuclear weapons depleted to irrelevance.

This would place India not in the category of Germany and Japan, both of whom have a muscular nuclear power capability, but that inhabited by the likes of Burundi and Laos, a supplicant state dependent on technology handouts from "advanced" states. That Manmohan Singh has in effect written his political epitaph by agreeing to this deal speaks for the capacity of the Bush team to bully and cajole enough to get their way, even when -- as in Iraq -- such immediate "victories" lay the seeds for future disaster.

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The Indian prime minister's obsessive eagerness to conclude a deal -- almost any deal -- with President Bush is not born out of circumstances. Granted, India faces a shortage of uranium, caused partly by the tardiness of successive governments in overcoming "environmentalist" resistance to the opening of new mines. However, India depends on nuclear power for less than 3 percent of its total electricity generation, and given the costs of nuclear power sourced from expensive Western reactors, it would be more prudent to (a) raise funds by selling India-developed technologies for nuclear power generation, to buyers in Southeast Asia and South America (b) use such funds and other grants for fast-tracking the indigenous nuclear energy program, especially the conversion to thorium in place of uranium as the feedstock, as India has ,at over 500,000 tons, more than half the world's proven reserves of this radioactive material and (c) intensify efforts to exploit India's own uranium reserves. In order to meet a temporary shortfall of uranium, the Sonia Gandhi-led coalition government at New Delhi has agreed to effectively destroy India's robust nuclear program.

Now, the basics. India has at present only 15 operational reactors, of which 12 are in the list of 14 that has been offered to be placed under international safeguards. Thus, while Manmohan Singh has claimed that only 65 percent of India's nuclear capacity will enter the safeguards regime, in fact around 85 percent of present operational capacity would go under safeguards.

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The Bush administration has repeatedly made it explicit that India would not be treated as a Nuclear Weapons State as a consequence of the nuclear deal. This means that the safeguards applied on the "civilian" nuclear capability of India would be of the intrusive kind applied to non-nuclear weapons states. This goes against the Government of India's oft-stated stand that it would not accept any outcome that does not, de facto if not de jure, accept India as a Nuclear Weapons State

Such a safeguards regime would effectively cripple India's indigenous nuclear program. The scientists of the Department of Atomic Energy would need IAEA permission even to shift lab equipment from one location to the other. Even more deadly, under "pursuit" clauses, IAEA inspectors can adopt the same harsh measures on entities that they subjectively believe have collaborated in any conceivable way with the "civilian" entities. An email from a scientist working in an unsafeguarded military facility to a friend working in a "civilian" location can be used as the basis for such inspections. Worryingly, any company that is, or is to the subjective satisfaction of the international inspectors, "guilty" of supplying services or products to both a civilian as well as a military facility would be open to inspections that could -- for the benefit of competitors located in countries such as the U.S., France and China, known to access privileged information from the IAEA -- leak to other entities, thus destroying the ability to compete in the marketplace. In effect, these restrictions would ensure that few Indian companies would take the risk of supplying services and materiel to the country's nuclear sector, thus ensuring dependence on outside sources as well as a drastic slowing-down of the military program.

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This program would already have been hit by the removal from production of the CIRUS reactor located at Mumbai, which has been estimated to produce 35 percent of the highly-enriched uranium and plutonium needed for the cores of India's nuclear weapons. This is on top of the removal of over 80 percent of capacity by the transfer of 14 reactors to the "civilian" list.

Initial estimates are that India would need to spend US$ 16 billion over the next five years simply to compensate for this disruption in fuel supply for the military program. This figure would, at a conservative estimate, rise to US$ 40 billion over the next 10 years. Given the huge outlays that would be needed to purchase foreign reactors and fuel, as well as the billions of dollars that would need to be spent on U.S. armaments to keep friends of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in good humor, this would mean that the Indian military program would get capped, rolled back and finally eliminated over the next 12 years, as the weapon cores degrade and fail to get replaced. Not coincidentally, Prime Minister Singh has stopped talking of a "Credible Minimum Deterrent."

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It is now a "Minimum Credible Deterrent." Unfortunately, the nuclear deal will ensure that this "minimum" soon ceases to be "credible." This is in a context where China would be free to continue its assistance to Pakistan, North Korea and now Bangladesh, so as to checkmate regional rivals India and Japan.

Not merely has the "India-friendly" George W. Bush effectively capped the Indian military program, he has managed to get the Indians to agree to the unprecedented condition of safeguards in perpetuity. Thus, Manmohan Singh has bound all his successor regimes into accepting this emasculating nuclear deal, or facing the risk of sanctions. Under the deal, India would not have the right to move safeguarded entities from the civilian to the military sector even in the case of a military emergency such as a nuclear attack.

Of course, the capping and rollback of India's supply of nuclear weapons would make such an attack more rather than less likely. Unlike those vociferous critics of Nuclear India, the Scandinavians, the world's most populous democracy has threats other than otters and seals to contend with. India abuts China, a country whose ruling structure is authoritarian and unpredictable. There are the failing states of Pakistan and Nepal on other borders, as well as the Wahabbizing nation of Bangladesh and the splintered island of Sri Lanka. Close by is Central Asia, where rival kleptocracies joust and a well-funded Wahabbi movement spreads its influence. Next door is Indonesia, not the most stable of republics, and a little away are Iran and the Middle East, not to mention the African coast.

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Clearly, those who say that India's 1.1 billion people do not need a nuclear umbrella have yet to look at an accurate map.

Volleys of opinions generated by the well-funded international non-proliferation lobby (which since the 1970s has ignored China, North Korea and Pakistan in its obsession with India) have painted a picture of economic desolation were the nuclear deal not to be signed. The reality is that the worst-case scenario -- should the Nuclar Suppliers Group continue its blockade of India -- would be the shutdown of one of the Tarapur nuclear power plants in 18 months.

For at least the same cost of buying reactors from France, the U.S. and other countries, and high-priced uranium from Australia, India's own thorium-based Fast Breeder Reactor program can be fast-tracked so as to become operational within eight to nine years, ie: the same length of time it would take to make operational imported reactors.

Decades ago, India's scientists began work on a three-stage program of nuclear self-sufficiency. First would come the development of pressurized heavy water reactors. Next, the Fast Breeder reactors. Finally, thorium would replace uranium as reactor fuel. Scientists at atomic research establishments in India privately claim that the country is at the cusp of proceeding to Stage II of this three-stage program for generation of adequate volumes of nuclear power. The significance of this is that, once this milestone gets crossed, additional uranium will no longer be needed, as the new processes would "breed" more fuel than it takes in. According to a top scientist, "even at present, India has more than enough known deposits of natural uranium to meet the planned Stage I level of 10,000MW of nuclear power." He and other scientists smell not simply a rat but a giant bandicoot in the tearing hurry of the Bush administration to lock India into a regime of safeguards that would gut the indigenous program and make the country reliant on outside fuel and technology. In his recent Asia Society U.S. President Bush has made it clear that his administration classes India with the 130-plus countries that would be denied the indigenous capability of processing fuel. These would have to depend on "advanced nuclear powers such as "Germany and Japan" to meet their needs. Unlike India, neither of the two is a nuclear weapons power. Clearly, Bush would like to travel the road taken by South Africa and Brazil, who have folded up their indigenous capabilities in exchange for (largely unfulfilled) promises of technological assistance. It must be said to the credit of the Bush administration that they have been transparent about their intention to convert India into a non-nuclear power. It is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has repeatedly obscured the truth from his own people, by pretending that the twin elephants of perpetuity and intrusive inspections do not exist.

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And once India's nukes are dealt with, can there be any doubt that its rockets will follow? Already there are essays on how India's ICBM program "is targeted at the U.S.", something that has thus far remained a secret to the entire Indian military establishment, which is focusing on a Great Power much closer to home. Like the nuclear weapons program, which has piggybacked on the civilian nuclear energy program, the Indian missile program has been powered by the development of rockets designed to launch satellites into space. Although Bush began to make noises about participating in the Indian space program three years ago, as yet there has been zero contribution from the U.S. side. Once the anti-nuclear lobby has its way, can the anti-rocket enthusiasts be far behind? Manmohan Singh can be relied on to somberly inform Parliament that India "desperately needs foreign assistance" in launching an adequate number of satellites, and so he has decided to scrap the Indian program in favor of exclusive reliance on foreign-built launch vehicles. As a sop, perhaps an Indian national would join the team aboard a future space shuttle, taking a call from President Bush and Prime Minister Singh as he surveys the end of the Indian space program.

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If, despite the one-sided nature of the deal, the non-proliferation lobbies in the U.S., China and Europe are vociferating against the July 18, 2005 Singh-Bush nuclear agreement, the reason lies in their desire to force the Indians to publicly eat crow rather than, as now, pretend that the country's indigenous nuclear ( and subsequently missile) program has not been terminally affected

Like China, India is a country with a high degree of immunity to international sanctions. Once the nuclear deal begins to be implemented, the effects it will have on India's nuclear establishment will generate a political firestorm that will kill the deal and -- almost certainly -- the political career of Manmohan Singh. Ties between India and the U.S. are multiplying exponentially, but this is despite rather than because of the two governments. People-to-people, business-to-business and university-to-university contact is growing at an accelerating clip. The nuclear deal, far from giving a boost to this process, has the potential for igniting within India the same suspicion of U.S. intentions that resulted in a mud wall being built within India against U.S. contacts during the 1970s and well into the 80s, a development that harmed the interests of both countries. By seeking to force through a nuclear deal that is scientifically and politically unimplementable on the Indian side, George W. Bush may do for U.S.-India official relations what Nixon and Kissinger succeeded in doing in 1971, when they ordered the nuke-armed USS Enterprise to enter the Bay of Bengal in an effort at blackmailing New Delhi from preventing the slaughter of Bengalis by the Pakistan army. As Iraq has shown, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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Professor M D Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher education, India

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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