Crib Sheet: Nukes and India

This article is reprinted from Campus, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.

On March 2, 2006, President Bush announced an historic nuclear cooperation deal on civilian nuclear technologies with India as part of an effort to forge a broader strategic relationship with the country. While the Bush administration is right to seek a strengthened relationship with India, this deal could needlessly complicate U.S.-China relations, make it harder for the U.S. to address Iran’s nuclear program and undermine efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Like most countries, India is concerned about its energy security. It sees nuclear energy as a way to deliver power to more of its citizens. Under the proposed deal, the United States would end the nuclear trade embargo against India that was put in place by the U.S. Congress in 1978. Congress imposed the embargo in response to India’s first nuclear test in 1974. India built the bomb using technology that it acquired from the United States and Canada on the condition that the technology would only be used for peaceful purposes.

For the deal to move forward, Congress must change the 1978 law, known as the “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.” The United States must also gain the support of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an informal consortium of countries that export nuclear technology to prevent nuclear exports to countries that might use the technology to build nuclear weapons. The group was formed in response to India’s 1974 test but now covers nuclear exports to all countries.

While limited details of the deal are known publicly, it is clear that the United States will supply India with uranium that could be used to fuel India’s nuclear energy reactors. The deal will also pave the way for joint research ventures and other technological partnerships. In return, India accepted international safeguards for over 14 nuclear facilities that it identified as civilian; India’s remaining eight facilities are for military purposes and would not be subject to safeguards. Much of the plan was conceived by Robert Blackwill, President Bush’s former ambassador to India and former deputy national security adviser under Condoleezza Rice.

More broadly, the deal demonstrates a major shift in U.S. relations with India. During the Cold War, India allied with the Soviet Union; relations between the United States and India were mostly chilly until around the time that President Clinton traveled there in 2000. Today, India is the world’s largest democracy, with the potential to serve as an anchor of peace and prosperity in South Asia.

At the same time, the deal will put India in a position to dramatically increase the size of its nuclear arsenal, even if it does not currently intend to build more weapons. The deal violates the letter and the spirit of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of global efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. And the deal could obstruct efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons.

1. There are compelling reasons for why the United States should seek a strategic relationship with India

India is the world’s largest democracy, second most populous country and the fourth biggest economy—growing 7 percent per year— and it is increasingly eager to shoulder the international responsibilities that a country of its size and stature should take on.

The notion that India could serve as a strategic counterweight to China is one of the Bush administration’s major justifications for the nuclear deal. China is currently headed in a peaceful direction, but surprise is a fact of international life. China could change its present course. In the very unlikely event that this were to happen, India could play a vital role in containing China.

Some hawks in the administration take this reasoning a step further. They are convinced that China will fail to cooperate with the United States and international organizations, that the United States and China are bound for conflict in the future and that we better start preparing today. Lifting the nuclear cooperation embargo, they say, will enable India to produce more nuclear weapons and import sophisticated U.S. military technology that could be valuable in a conflict with China.

China, for its part, will interpret the nuclear deal as a hostile act designed to isolate and contain it. The deal could lead China to adopt a hedging strategy, such as an increased reliance on nuclear weapons in its defense strategy — a development that clearly would not be in the United States’ interest.

2. But the deal needlessly complicates U.S. relations with China

If war with China is inevitable, then this is an acceptable cost because China was bound to adopt a hostile course of action anyway. If anything, however, China is headed in the opposite direction: It has become increasingly integrated into the global economy. China has joined the World Trade Organization and is in fact becoming increasingly dependent on it for its economic development. China has even cooperated with the United States on issues of shared strategic concern, such as ongoing efforts to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear arms. In this sense, the nuclear deal needlessly complicates our relationship with China at a crucial moment in global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

3. The timing of the deal could complicate efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions

The United States needs the active cooperation of China, Russia and others in order to counter Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program. Iran’s nuclear efforts center on developing the capability to manufacture enriched uranium. Enriched uranium can be used to fuel energy reactors, but it can also be used to spark a nuclear explosion in a bomb.

As noted above, the nuclear deal could help India increase its stockpile of materials that could be used in a bomb. In essence, the United States is soliciting China’s support to prevent Iran — an important economic ally of China’s — from acquiring the capability to produce uranium just as we’re facilitating the ability of one of China’s strategic adversaries to produce more uranium.

4. The deal violates and undermines the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)

India is one of three countries (along with Israel and Pakistan ) never to have signed the 1970 Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) (pdf), the cornerstone of global efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Under that agreement, the “non-nuclear-weapon States” foreswear nuclear weapons and accept international safeguards over their nuclear materials to ensure that the materials aren’t diverted to a weapons program.

In exchange, the five “nuclear-weapon States” — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — agree to gradually reduce their nuclear arsenals, facilitate the peaceful use of nuclear technology and “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.”

India decided to remain outside the NPT because it would have had to join as a “non-nuclear-weapon State.” In order to be counted as a nuclear-weapon State, a country had to have tested a nuclear weapon prior to January 1, 1967. India tested its first weapon in 1974. This was unacceptable to India because the date would allow China — one of its arch enemies — to retain its nuclear arsenal. India decried this as a double standard.

The NPT does not prohibit the United States from engaging in nuclear cooperation with countries that are not party to the treaty. In the case of India, however, even civil nuclear cooperation would violate the NPT. According to both U.S. law and the NPT, the United States must regard India as a non-nuclear-weapon State. The NPT’s restriction on transfers of nuclear technology is clear and strong: States are “not in any way to assist” a country’s nuclear weapons program. The head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, said in February that India’s civil and military nuclear programs are “intimately intertwined.” A key part of the deal is that the U.S. would guarantee a “reliable supply of [nuclear] fuel to India.” This fuel, however, “would free up India’s limited uranium reserves for fuel that would be burned in these reactors to make nuclear weapons. This would allow India to increase its production from the estimated 6 to 10 additional nuclear bombs per year to several dozen per year.”

The deal also undermines the “grand bargain” that ties the NPT together. Under that bargain, non-nuclear-weapons States give up nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology. The implication is that if a non-nuclear-weapon State didn’t join the NPT, no country would go out of its way to share peaceful nuclear technology with them. The nuclear deal denigrates this bargain by giving India access to nuclear technology even though it is not a party to the NPT.

By undermining the NPT, the nuclear deal could make it far more difficult for the United States to collect allies in the fight against nuclear proliferation. Countries could begin to see the grand bargain whither or refuse to actively support U.S. nonproliferation goals out of spite for the Bush administration’s double standard.

5. The deal is far from done

The ball is now in Congress’s court, which must change U.S. law if the deal is to move forward. So far, Congress has shown some skepticism about the deal, but that could change once the White House starts putting the pressure on. The government of India, for its part, hired Barbour Griffith & Rogers, LLC, a prominent Washington lobbying firm, to work the Hill. BGR’s president is none other than Robert Blackwill.

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