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The Nuclear Suppliers Group’s (NSG) decision on June 24, 2011, to revoke the clean waiver India received from the cartel in September 2008 (Statement on Civil Nuclear Cooperation with India) has set tongues wagging everywhere in the nuclear community. Non-proliferation “purists” (“ayatollahs” is the more derisive term used by Bharat Karnad) such as Daryl Kimball at the Arms Control Association (ACA) hailed the correction as it helped “fix a key flaw” in India’s waiver, ensuring that sensitive atomic items were not transferred to the country and used in its military programme. On the other side of the divide, analysts such as Brahma Chellaney and Karnad have written triumphal “we-told-you-so” articles denouncing the Manmohan Singh administration’s naïveté at best (or duplicity at worst) in proceeding with the Indo-US nuclear deal in the first place. Milder voices, such as former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Anil Kakodkar, have called the NSG’s decision a “betrayal” while G. Parthasarathy has concluded that India “cannot trust the US as a long-term and reliable partner on nuclear issues.” However, the United States, Russia, and France have all publicly stated that the changes announced by the NSG would not apply to India at least in their bilateral dealings with the burgeoning Asian power.

I have supported the Indo-US nuclear deal from the outset and I still do. At this point, however, I do not wish to enter into discussion about the intricacies of the deal itself but reflect upon the amendments the NSG has passed, its impact on India, and future options available to the South Asian state (for a detailed analysis of the Indo-US nuclear deal, please refer to the article “The Prodigal State: India’s New Nuclear Clothes”). Nor is it my purpose to discuss the proceedings of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) which led to the framing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), although suffice it to say that I wholeheartedly agree with the Italian diplomats Roberto Ducci and Pietro Quaroni who sarcastically compared the treaty to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, “signed in its time to the sound of trumpets.”

The new guidelines the NSG has implemented during its June 23-24 meeting in Noordwijk in the Netherlands makes more stringent the conditions under which a country can receive enrichment and reprocessing (E&R) technologies. The 46-nation export control group fears that the existing  agreement with India maintains the potential for the diversion of critical technology from the civilian sector to the military realm despite India’s separation of military and civilian nuclear facilities and assurances that such a diversion will not happen. The new language amends paragraphs 6 and 7 of the NSG guidelines by adding “objective criteria,” stating that, in order to receive E&R technologies, a country:

 – must be a party to the NPT and is in full compliance with its obligations under the Treaty;

 – has not been identified in a report to the IAEA Secretariat which is under consideration by the IAEA Board of Governors, as being in breach of its obligations to comply with its safeguards agreement, nor continues to be the subject of Board of Governors decisions calling on it to take additional steps to comply with its safeguards obligations or to build confidence in the peaceful nature of its program….;

 – is adhering to NSG guidelines and has reported to the Security Council of the United Nations that it is implementing effective export controls as identified by Security Council Resolution 1540; and

 – …has brought into force a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, and an Additional Protocol based on the Model Additional Protocol, or pending this, is implementing appropriate safeguards agreements in cooperation with the IAEA Board of Governors.”

In addition, the changes stipulate that suppliers of E&R technologies receive assurances on non-explosive use, that recipient countries have in place effective safeguards in perpetuity, and re-transfer, a commitment to international standards of physical protection, and a commitment to IAEA safety standards and international safety conventions. The new guidelines also allow suppliers of E&R to consider “any relevant factors as may be applicable” to ensure that the transfer is used for peaceful purposes only.

The conditions levied upon India in the NSG’s Statement on Civil Nuclear Cooperation includes in paragraph 4 terms that eliminate grounds for any nuclear exports to the only other countries outside the NPT – Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – implying that the new provisions in the guidelines were expressly designed to target India. But how much do these restrictions affect India?

India already has enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and does not need more advanced equipment of this type for its nuclear industry, Kimball has argued. But the stricter controls mean, symbolically at least, that India has not yet been fully admitted to the nuclear club. “The Indians are going to cry foul. They want to be able to say that they are under no nuclear technology trade restrictions and that they are a responsible nuclear power,” said Kimball, director of the Washington-based ACA. “It is about prestige. It is not about any technical need.” One diplomat who attended the NSG meeting suggested there would be little practical impact as India had not been seeking this kind of technology even before the amendment. “The key issue for India is image. The NSG exemption gave India the appearance of being drawn into the mainstream. This change in the guidelines affects that view of itself.”

But does India need to import E&R technology? It is quite clear from India’s nuclear programme that India already possesses reprocessing technology. In fact, the first reprocessing plant came online in the mid-1960s and was crucial in providing plutonium for India’s test in 1974. Since then, India has increased its facilities somewhat. The launch of India’s first nuclear submarine, the Arihant, in 2009 indicates that India has enrichment technology as well, for nuclear-fuelled submarines use highly enriched uranium (HEU) to economise on the size of the reactor on board. Furthermore, India has started building its second nuclear submarine in collaboration with Russia. The real question is if the technology India possesses is on par with the best technology available on the international market. Given the highly secretive nature of India’s nuclear programme and the government’s complete disregard of transparency and declassification of non-security related documents as per the thirty-year rule, we cannot know this for sure. It is also of concern whether India can expand at a pace sufficient to maintain its economic and infrastructural growth.

Given these circumstances, it stands to reason that the latest NSG guidelines will not affect India as much as has been touted by some even though they seem to carry the mark of an explicitly anti-India manoeuvre. The next question is, of course, what are India’s options at this juncture? In the immediate future, if India intends to import $150 billion worth of foreign reactors, the Ministry of External Affairs’ first step threatening to impose a nuclear boycott of any country following the latest unilateral NSG guidelines is a good start. In a TV interview, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao stated, “We will defend our interests to the hilt,” when asked if India would not buy reactors from any country that refuses to sell E&R technology as well. “There is a balance of interest, there is a balance of commitments; there is mutual reciprocity involved. There are leverages that we can exert from our side also,” she added. India’s ambassador to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament Arundhati Ghose has pointed out that the NSG has merely issued guidelines which carry moral weight but it is not legally binding – given India’s growing economic clout and nuclear market, it is unlikely that too many members of the NSG would choose to shirk India in case of a boycott. For example, Australia, despite its tough rhetoric in 2008, is now reconsidering its decision not to sell uranium to India.

Another reason for optimism is that many of the NSG members, mainly the US, France, Russia, Germany, and the UK, have already expressed their support to India for becoming a member of the NSG and other multilateral export control organisations or regimes such as the Australia Group (to prevent the spread of chemical and biological weapons), the Wassenaar Arrangement (for dual-use goods and technologies), and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). India’s membership to these groups would increase India’s ability to thwart any future moves detrimental to India’s interests that may be contemplated by overzealous members. Needless to say, there is strong opposition to India’s membership to these groups, particularly the NSG, as non-proliferation purists have lobbied hard to convince politicians in their respective countries that such a move would dilute the NPT.

Of course, ultimately, if India can ever get its act together – progress in India’s nuclear programme has not exactly been at a breakneck pace no matter what the scientists and politicians say – India can emerge as an alternative nuclear market to the NSG. India has formally declared its adherence to the NSG guidelines and has a robust export control system in place that has been augmented by the stipulations of the Indo-US nuclear deal (there was primarily a concern of forged end-user certificates). That being the case, a country refused a nuclear transfer license by an NSG member can approach any non-NSG country such as India for technical and industrial assistance. India will be one of the few countries with the full range of nuclear activities that would be able assist such countries. Since India will not be member of the NSG, even if it agrees to adhere to NSG guidelines, there will be no bar on transfers from India to NPT members in good standing. Needless to say, it is in India’s own interests to ensure that any nuclear commerce it undertakes is done so responsibly and safely.

There is also this to be considered: even if the deal did block E&R technology sales to India, if India could not leverage the power of its market for countries to look the other way regarding the new guidelines, is it worth abandoning the deal? In my opinion, this will be a very difficult bargain, but I do not think it prudent to abandon the deal even then. India is desperately short of power even now (a 13% shortfall) and with growing economic might, power consumption will skyrocket (India produces about 662 GWe right now and demand is expected to cross 960 GWe by 2032 and 1,300 GWe by 2050 – meaning that India will have to achieve in the next 30 years what it took 60 to achieve so far). Neither coal nor hydroelectricity can keep up with projected power consumption in the next 30 years, and importing more oil and natural gas would be a massive drain on the economy, particularly given the instability of the Middle East where India gets over 70% of her oil from. Needless to say, any environmental goals India may have will simply be vapourised. The nuclear agreement allows India to maintain reactor and fuel imports while India keeps developing her three-stage programme, and India possesses at least some indigenous E&R technology – in this situation, strategists must analyse the multiplier effect full electrification can have on India’s economy and infrastructure over the next 30 years and weigh that very carefully. From every projection I have seen, it is simply not worth sacrificing what is possible for what is desirable. Besides, power comes not only from the barrel of a gun but also from your wallet as the Chinese example has taught us.

The fear-mongering that has been going on that suggests that India’s nuclear wings have been clipped is therefore inaccurate and perhaps even deliberately misleading given the hawkish view of international politics its purveyors have. To be fair to them, however, the entire process by which India could become a mainstream nuclear power and have a permanent seat on the UNSC is quite convoluted and has not been easy at any stage. Unfortunately, this is the price India has to pay for her strategic incoherence over the past six decades. There is no reason for the status quo powers to suddenly accommodate a new member into their elite club without getting something in exchange, and India cannot get everything she wants without giving something in return – to wish so, as seems to be thinking among critics, is pure fantasy. The insistence on practicing moralpolitik over realpolitik all these decades is not in and of itself something to be ashamed of, but as Thucydides reminds us, “when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel.” It is hoped that these teething troubles will assist Indian leaders in achieving a clarity of thought that would be a novel change in Indian foreign policy.