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Indo-US Nuclear Accord: Implications for Peace and Security in South Asia

Official India does not admit that the Indo-US nuclear accord, by providing greater flexibility to the Indian nuclear programme and to nuclear weapons production, is a threat to peace in south Asia.



Implications for Peaceand Security in South Asia

Official India does not admit that the Indo-US nuclear accord, by providing greater flexibility to the Indian nuclear programme and to nuclear weapons production, is a threat to peace in south Asia.


ow that the din from the celebration of the Indo-US nuclear agreement has died down a little, it is time to take a reality check on where the nuclear agreement will take us.

The origins of the current burst of nuclear enthusiasm are understandable. After all, the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement appears to have initiated the dismantling of the three-decade old nuclear blockade of India. Across the political spectrum in India, barring a few exceptions, the global non-proliferation regime is detested for its hypocritical and discriminatory character.

However, true to form, official India has been firmly in denial mode regarding the implications of the deal for peace and security in south Asia. In response to the occasional question on the subject, government officials have been content to present the spin that they have agreed upon with the Bush administration. The general line is that this deal is not about weapons, it is about civilian nuclear power. It will not provoke an arms race in the subcontinent. Hence there is no reason for Pakistan or China to worry about the deal. Even if for a fawning Indian media this line appears sufficient, there is ample evidence that both Pakistan and China are less than convinced with this argument. It does not take rocket science to figure out why.

More Material for Weapons

The bottom line is that the “Separation Agreement” (on the categorisation of nuclear facilities as civilian or military), between India and US, has also exactly delineated the capabilities that are available for nuclear weapons production by India. And it has done so in two mutually complementary ways. It has also explicitly increased the availability of the raw material needed for weapons production.

On the one hand, the Separation Agreement, by designating 65 per cent of the total installed thermal capacity of reactors to be in the civilian sector, has also clarified exactly how much reactor capacity is available for weapons production. In the debate on the deal prior to the Bush visit, it was clarified that all the reactors that would be designated as non-civilian have the potential to be used for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Anil Kakodkar, has subsequently confirmed this explicitly in an interview in The Hindu dated March 17, 2006, where he stated that the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) 1 and 2 and Tarapur 3 and 4 reactors were out of safeguards for strategic reasons. This is apart from reactors such as Dhruva and Cirus, research reactors, which are widely considered to have been until now the workhorses of weapons-grade plutonium production. While Cirus is to be phased out, another research reactor of larger capacity is likely to be built.

At one point before the Bush visit, the chairman of the AEC had also asserted that the fast breeder reactors – both the operational test fast breeder reactor (TFBR) and the prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) under construction – were also of strategic importance implying that they could also be used for weapons production. While in the March 17 interview Kakodkar had a different emphasis in explaining the strategic importance of the breeders, suggesting that it had more to do with safeguards than with the production of weapons-grade plutonium, nevertheless the point that they could potentially be used for strategic purposes had been made.

Perhaps more significantly, by providing the means to ease India’s current and long-term shortage of natural uranium, the nuclear deal has concurrently ensured greater availability of the raw material for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Before the deal, the only source of uranium for India, due to the nuclear blockade, was domestic mining. This obviously imposed constraints on the quantum of uranium that could eventually be processed for strategic use. That constraint can now be eased since uranium can be imported for a significant section of the power programme.

Of course, once the deal is through, there are fewer unsafeguarded reactors which could be used for producing weapons-grade plutonium, and it might appear that the weapons programme had been restricted. However it was never the case that a significant proportion of the power programme would be turned over entirely to weapons material production all at once. The unsafeguarded 35 per cent of installed thermal capacity alone can produce, if fully utilised, weapons-grade plutonium for about 200 weapons per year, enough to satisfy the most Strangelovian interpretation of a “minimum deterrent”. Even a fraction of this would do quite well for the weapons programme.

Even now the power programme faces a shortfall in uranium supply and the capacity factors of power plants have been cut back to manage the crisis. The possibility of uranium imports will ensure that there will be no pressure to choose between running power plants at the maximum possible capacity and keeping weapons production running, even at enhanced levels when necessary.

Essentially, the same argument applies to the production of plutonium for the fast breeder programme. Though the PFBR will use unsafeguarded plutonium, the requirement for future breeder reactors that generate power can be met from reprocessing safeguarded material. Therefore,

Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006 the production of plutonium stocks from unsafeguarded sources for loading breeder reactors can be minimised. The deal also allows some flexibility with using enriched uranium fuel for submarine reactors and so on. In sum, by easing the critical bottleneck with regard to the availability of natural uranium, the nuclear deal delivers important elements of flexibility that eventually, directly or indirectly, feed into the weapons programme.

The prime minister’s suo motu statement in Parliament on the eve of the Bush visit took particular care to emphasise that India’s nuclear weapons programme was not being compromised, an assurance that has since been reiterated on several occasions. The statement underlined the need for “a credible minimum nuclear deterrent” capable of inflicting unacceptable retaliatory damage in response. Significantly, it affirmed that the list of civilian and military nuclear facilities had been drawn up taking into account “current and future capabilities” and “maintaining the required level of comfort in terms of our strategic resilience”. Further, India also retains the option to put any new nuclear facility under the military umbrella if it so chooses.

When the White House asserts that the agreement would in no way provoke a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent, it would be naive to imagine that this assertion is being read in its literal sense by the major players in the making of the foreign, defence and nuclear policies of the US. One of the points to be decided in the current debate on the legislation pending before the US Congress is whether or not Congress is willing to accept the Bush administration’s determination of the level of nuclear weapons capabilities that India can be permitted to have in the short and medium term.

No Threat to US

While India’s nuclear weapons, at the current level, are sufficient to significantly threaten Pakistan, they are much less of a threat to China, and pose no serious threat to the US. In the draft legislation that the Bush administration has forwarded to Congress, India’s moratorium on testing has been linked explicitly to the continuation of the special waiver for India from the constraints of US Atomic Energy Act. The draft proposes that the waiver will be suspended the moment India tests a nuclear explosive device. From the US point of view, this linkage is critical. This effectively ensures that India will not acquire thermonuclear weapons capability, and thus will not pose a serious threat to the US in any immediate fashion. The bottom line is that the Bush administration is willing to countenance a certain amount of simmering nuclear tension in the subcontinent, relying on its close ties with both India and Pakistan to prevent it from getting out of hand.

The statements, explanations and polemic emerging from both Washington and New Delhi on this issue have undoubtedly been parsed with some care by Islamabad and Beijing. The major strategic equation involving Indian nuclear weapons is the Indo-Pakistan relationship and it is evident that for Pakistan the separation plan will define the contours of the nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. Pakistan will note in particular that these contours have been defined with US approval. It is clear that Pakistan will turn to China for assistance and support. President Musharraf has already reminded the world soon after the signing of the deal that Pakistan has a strategic relationship with China. That Pakistan has approached China for assistance with nuclear power has been confirmed by a senior Chinese analyst and the Sino-Pakistan equation will undoubtedly gain in significance as the Indo-US nuclear deal proceeds.

Pakistan is likely to sharply enhance its production of enriched uranium and also simultaneously enhance its production of plutonium by reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel from the one research reactor that it is reported to possess. Unlike India, Pakistan does not have unsafeguarded nuclear power reactors that can be diverted for production of material for reprocessing into weapons-grade plutonium. But nevertheless Pakistan is likely to seek cooperation in the nuclear power sector with China, at least for reasons of prestige and parity and to maximise the use of domestic uranium supply for weapons purposes. Any successful nuclear collaboration between India and any other member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group is likely to provoke China into entering a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan.

The strategic environment in the subcontinent is unlikely to improve if Pakistan sees itself being forced down this path. There has been a noticeable lack of any special effort by the Indian government to allay the natural fears of Pakistan about such an agreement. This attitude, together with the gloating tone of much of the Indian media commentary on Pakistan’s inability to obtain a similar agreement with the US, is likely to pose fresh problems in India-Pakistan relations.

The other problem currently is that again, as is typical in the conduct of Indian nuclear policy, official India is also on a moral high, induced by the certificate of good conduct as a non-proliferator that has been delivered by the US. The irony of the certificate being delivered by George Bush, who presides over the hyperaggressive strategy of the possible preemptive use of nuclear weapons against even non-weapons states, will not be lost on the world, even if it is lost on the Indian elite. Nor will the irony of India, which always opposed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) as discriminatory, now joining up with the enforcers of the same treaty and talking of its proliferation concerns regarding Iran, pass unnoticed. India, of course, will also join the nuclear weapons club’s conspiracy of silence over Israel’s nuclear weapons, which are far and away the most significant nuclear threat in west Asia.

Ground Realities

The trouble is that one might have to wait for some dramatic event to bring Indian diplomacy back to ground again. In 1998, this was occasioned by the Pakistani nuclear weapons tests that immediately followed India’s. It is not clear what it will take in 2006 to inject a note of realism into our foreign policy discourse. Unfortunately, it could be something as dramatic as the unseating of president Musharraf by a jehadi opposition coalition with the support of a section of the armed forces. It is clear that there is considerable unhappiness in Pakistan vis-a-vis the US, particularly following the Indo-US nuclear deal. This may well translate into opposition to Musharraf, who will be seen as having aligned with the US in the “war on terror” without obtaining anything of substance in return, especially if he is unable over a longer period to obtain a similar deal even from, say, China.

There will be strong pressure in India, in the short and medium term, to play the US card against Pakistan. Prime minister Manmohan Singh has been so concerned with fending off charges from the hawkish end of the political spectrum that it is unlikely that any serious effort will be made to assuage Pakistan’s insecurities arising from the agreement. Substantial reassurance can be given to Pakistan if India were to propose, in short order,

Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006

concrete measures for lowering nuclear tensions and staving off an arms race. These measures, however, need to go beyond routine gestures such as the restatement of India’s no first use policy.

The trouble unfortunately with nuclear weapons is that, except in rare circumstances, the terms of discourse on nuclear weapons policy are set by the demands of the hawks of the given moment. One may perhaps reasonably assume that the current government in Delhi will not have occasion to indulge in belligerent nuclear talk. But it is also the case that there are forces in the Indian polity that may yet come to power and pursue, even within the limits set by this agreement, nuclear weaponisation in a more aggressive fashion, thus endangering peace in the subcontinent. If the development of Indo-US relations is played up by India and the US as a development that cuts Pakistan to size, then the pressure for an aggressive nuclear posture on Pakistan’s part will be intensified.

Regrettably, the impact of the Indo-US nuclear agreement on the geopolitical realities of the subcontinent has invited little serious consideration other than gloating at Pakistan’s discomfiture and, at best, some superficial comment. Typically, while basking in the glow of the compliments of the world’s sole superpower the realities of the south Asian neighbourhood have, at least for the moment, been forgotten.



Economic and Political Weekly March 25, 2006

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