March 08, 2006

''Bush Visits South Asia and Offers a Nuclear Gift to India''

fter taking salutes from the inter-services guard of honor in front of Rashtrapati Bhawan, the official residence of the president of India, U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters, "I have been received in many capitals around the world but I have never seen a reception as well-organized or as grand." This was not simply an appreciation of traditional Indian hospitality but a reflection of the warmth that a large section of Indians feel for Bush. After all, contrary to trends in most other parts of the world, 71 percent of India's populace holds a favorable view of the U.S., with 54 percent supporting Bush's handling of global affairs. Even before the trip to New Delhi, Bush's personal standing in India was higher than even in the U.S. and it is bound to skyrocket after the recently signed nuclear pact between the two states, which was the highlight of the U.S. president's four-day trip to South Asia.

A Soft Landing in Afghanistan

Before landing in New Delhi, Bush made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, his first since the U.S. military defeated the Taliban regime in 2001. The U.S. president rallied U.S. troops, expressed solidarity with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, and predicted that Osama bin Laden would be captured, amid concerns in U.S. intelligence circles that the insurgency in Afghanistan continues to grow and poses a greater threat to the Karzai government "than at any point since late 2001." While Bush made it clear that the U.S. does not intend to "cut and run" in the face of rising violence, there are plans that U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be reduced from their current level of about 19,000 to about 16,000 by the summer of 2006. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Afghanistan"]

The nation-building process in Afghanistan remains fragile with the security situation getting worse and the authority of the Karzai government becoming weaker by the day. Drug trafficking is further eroding the fundamentals of the rule of law and effective governance in the country as opium continues to generate over half the country's G.D.P. There is strong evidence that al-Qaeda and Taliban militants are using neighboring Pakistan as their base for launching strikes in Afghanistan. Suicide bombings in Afghanistan are at an all-time high and, as a consequence, Afghanistan's relations with Pakistan are becoming increasingly tense. It was no coincidence that just as Bush arrived in Afghanistan, Pakistani security forces struck a militant training camp in a tribal region near the Afghan border, killing around three dozen suspected militants.

India and the Nuclear Deal

Nevertheless, the focus of Bush's trip was clearly India. Some have gone to the extent of comparing this trip to former U.S. President Richard Nixon's opening to China. The visit was highly anticipated in India with the Indian media discussing the U.S.-India nuclear deal in all its arcane details for several months. The nuclear agreement, which was first signed during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington in July 2005, was awaiting finalization and it hinged on the ability of the Indian government to come up with a credible plan to separate its tightly entwined civilian and military nuclear facilities acceptable to the U.S. After some tough negotiations over a period of seven months that were continuing even as the U.S. president landed in New Delhi, the two states managed to arrive at an agreement.

India has agreed that 14 of its 22 nuclear reactors will be classified as civilian and will open to international safeguards. The other reactors, including the fast breeder reactors, will remain as military facilities, thereby not subject to international inspections. The accord also allows India to build future breeder reactors and keep them outside international inspections. India has accepted safeguards in perpetuity on its civilian nuclear reactors on the basis of a reciprocal commitment by the U.S. to guarantee unlimited nuclear fuel supply to India for its civilian program. Unlike other nuclear weapon states, however, India will not have the right to pull out any of its reactors once they have been put under safeguards.

The ball is largely now in the U.S. court since the deal has to get the U.S. Congress to change domestic laws, thereby permitting the U.S. to extend civilian nuclear help to India. The U.S. will also have to get the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (N.S.G.) to accept the deal and be open to nuclear cooperation with India. It will also have to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) to come up with India-specific safeguards.

The I.A.E.A. chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, was quick to endorse the deal, claiming that this agreement would not only help satisfy India's growing needs but would also bring India closer as an important partner in the non-proliferation regime. That being said, evolving India-specific safeguards could turn out to be a complicated task. Though India has declared itself a nuclear weapon state after conducting nuclear tests in 1998, it is not recognized as such by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (N.P.T.) of 1968.

This makes India's case unique and the I.A.E.A. safeguards will have to be negotiated accordingly. India might demand that its safeguards regime should be almost equivalent to the level of the inspection regime for the five nuclear weapon states. In fact, the Indian government would like the proposed India-specific safeguards with the I.A.E.A. to provide "on the one hand safeguards against the withdrawal of safeguarded nuclear material from civilian use at any time, and on the other, permit India to take corrective measures to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies."

Despite these issues, the nuclear deal allows India access to nuclear fuel that it needs urgently in light of its fuel shortages and burgeoning energy requirements. It ends three decades of Indian isolation from access to dual use and global high technology flows. At the same time, the strategic nuclear weapons program that India has maintained for all these years despite tremendous international pressure remains untouched. This is a very sensitive issue for the Indian scientific and strategic community and the Indian prime minister had to assure the Indian Parliament that "India will place under safeguards only those facilities that can be identified as civilian without damaging the nation's deterrence potential."

More significantly, there is a sense in India that with this agreement the world has finally reconciled itself to India's status as a nuclear power and as a major global player. The U.S.-India nuclear agreement has been viewed by most in the Indian strategic community as a part of an emerging Indo-U.S. strategic partnership. With the U.S. making it clear that the nuclear pact was unique to India and would not be repeated with Pakistan, one of the major Indian complaints against the U.S. that it tries to equate India and Pakistan also seems to have been redressed. [See: "Intelligence Brief: U.S.-India Nuclear Deal"]

With the exception of China, other major global powers such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia will willingly support this nuclear deal as it allows them to sell nuclear fuel, reactors, and equipment to India. China, on its part, has made its displeasure with the nuclear pact clear by asking India to sign the N.P.T. and dismantle its nuclear weapons. The official Xinhua news agency of China commented that the U.S.-India nuclear agreement "will set a bad example for other countries."

China's statements are in keeping with Beijing's long-standing policy of limiting India's capacity for power projection. As this deal is a recognition of India's rising global profile, China will do its best to scuttle it. A few months back it was reported that China decided to sell Pakistan six to eight nuclear reactors at the cost of US$10 billion. This deal was a not-so-subtle message to the U.S. that if Washington decides to play favorites, China also retains the same right. China's action also conveyed to India that even as India tries hard to break out of the straitjacket of being a South Asian power by forging a strategic partnership with the U.S., China will do its utmost to contain India by building up its neighboring adversaries. [See: "China's Strategy of Containing India"]

During his trip, Bush argued that the United States and India are "closer than ever before and this partnership has the power to transform the world." It is this understanding that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration's policy toward India from the very beginning and led it to proclaim openly that it would help India emerge as a major global player in the 21st century. India is viewed by this administration as not only a potential counterweight to China and violent Islamist groups, but also as a rising power that needs to be accommodated into the global order.

The nuclear pact was just one part of the larger package that included U.S.-India bilateral cooperation on a range of issues from investment, trade, and health to agriculture, the environment, and even mangoes. One of the largest efforts toward joint operability between the armed forces of the U.S. and India was also announced, leading to the Logistics Support Agreement that will be concluded shortly. This will allow the armed forces of both states to use each other's facilities for maintenance, servicing, communications, medical care, and refueling. The U.S. and India also plan to move forward with agreements that permit the launch of satellites with U.S.-built components and even U.S. satellites by Indian space launch vehicles.

The Road Ahead

While India is celebrating the great "nuclear bargain" that it has managed to extract from the U.S., the real drama has now shifted to Washington. Already complaints are being heard that Bush has given away far too much in the nuclear agreement with India in return for very little. Some, like Democratic Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, have claimed that the accord "undermines the security not only of the United States, but of the rest of the world." Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist wants a detailed briefing from the Bush administration on the implications of the nuclear deal for the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

In a similar vein, Senator Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would like the administration to show Congress how this deal will make the U.S. more secure. Even Bush himself has admitted that getting the approval of Congress is going to be difficult as the Bush administration will have to answer a number of questions satisfactorily before the deal is signed off by Congress.

Bush has made it clear that he intends to sell the deal as part of his energy security plan for the U.S. as well as by highlighting the importance of India in the U.S. strategic calculus. It will be argued that helping India, whose economy is projected to be one of the five largest by 2020, develop civil nuclear energy will reduce demand for fossil fuels and lower petrol pump prices for U.S. consumers. As of today, India imports three quarters of its oil, natural gas, and coal and receives only three percent of its power from nuclear energy.

The focus of the U.S. Congress, however, will be on the consequences of this pact for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, especially at a time when U.S. foreign policy is trying to grapple with Iran and North Korea. Supporters of non-proliferation have been very critical of this deal from the beginning. During the hearings in the U.S. Congress, the majority of the experts empanelled by the House Committee on International Relations argued that the deal weakens the international non-proliferation regime. Only a few, such as Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, claimed that bringing "New Delhi into the global non-proliferation regime through a lasting bilateral agreement that defines clearly enforceable benefits and obligations, therefore, not only strengthens American efforts to stem further proliferation but also enhances U.S. national security."

The Bush administration will have to convince the U.S. Congress that the basic bargain of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as exemplified by the N.P.T., will not come under strain with this agreement. The non-nuclear states, as identified by the N.P.T., have pledged not to make nuclear weapons and have their pledge verified through full-scope safeguards applied by the I.A.E.A. In return, they are entitled to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and to receive assistance in its development. Under the U.S.-India nuclear agreement, India will only accept safeguards on its designated peaceful nuclear facilities while the remaining facilities and the breeder program will continue uninhibited. Concerns are bound to be raised that this apparent double standard that allows India to escape full-scope safeguards and still obtain nuclear assistance while other states are held to a tougher standard can create problems for the future of the N.P.T.

There will also be concerns about the implications of this deal for India's nuclear weapons program. This deal might allow India to ramp up its weapons production as the supply of nuclear fuel to India would free up India's existing capacity to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium for its nuclear weapons stockpile. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns claimed that he is confident that India will focus most of its future nuclear growth on civilian energy development, not weapons-building. He is having "trouble understanding the argument that somehow this deal makes it more likely that India is going to engage in an arms build up."

Nevertheless, the non-proliferation community is unconvinced considering that India has decided not to accept safeguards on the prototype fast breeder reactor and the fast breeder test reactor, as well as on the reprocessing and enrichment capabilities associated with the fuel cycle for its strategic program. The idea that India will not focus on nuclear weapons in the future is unlikely considering the Indian prime minister's categorical assertion that "India will not be constrained in any way in building future nuclear facilities, whether civilian or military, as per [India's] national requirements" and "no constraint has been placed on [India's] right to construct new facilities for strategic purposes."

There are also more immediate issues such as that of Iranian nuclear aspirations. The New York Times has already stated that "the India deal is exactly the wrong message to send right now, just days before Washington and its European allies will be asking the I.A.E.A. to refer Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council for further action."

The Bush administration's ability to defend itself against these criticisms will in the end determine the fate of the U.S.-India nuclear pact. On its part, India has decided to permanently shut down the Cirus reactor in 2010 and to shift the Apsara reactor from the Bhabha Atomic Research Center. This has been done partly to assuage some of the concerns of the non-proliferation lobby that has long blamed India for going back on its word by diverting weapons-grade plutonium to the Pokhran nuclear test of 1974. Whether this is enough to allay the concerns of the non-proliferation community remains to be seen. Given the broad-based support that the idea of an Indo-U.S. partnership enjoys in the U.S. Congress, however, the ratification of the nuclear deal may not be as difficult as it might seem.

A Brief Sojourn in Pakistan

The final leg of Bush's journey was Pakistan, which started a bit ominously when a day before Bush's visit an American diplomat was killed in a targeted attack by a suicide bomber near the U.S. Consulate in Karachi. On the U.S.-India pact, while Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf argued that the U.S. had concluded a nuclear deal with India on the basis of its own interests, he made it clear that Islamabad had its own options if it would not be able to get a similar deal from the U.S. These options, in all probability, might include China building nuclear reactors for Pakistan, similar to the two Beijing already built at Chashma.

Bush's visit took place under unprecedented security at a time when Musharraf is facing widespread opposition from Islamists as well as from the more secular opposition parties. The violence over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad still continues unabated, making Pakistan's alliance with the U.S. all the more tenuous. Some hardliners argued that Bush's visit was aimed at "enslaving the Pakistani nation and rewarding General Musharraf for his patriotism to America."

Despite Musharraf's public pronouncements that parliamentary elections would take place next year and he would serve another presidential term only if asked by the elected national and provincial assemblies, there is speculation that elections may be postponed. The widespread popular discontent along with armed insurrections in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan has pushed Pakistan toward instability. [See: "Pakistan: a Geopolitical Crux"]

Against this backdrop, there are increasing concerns in the U.S. that Musharraf is not fully committed to fighting terrorism and has only taken half-hearted steps to hunt down militants in the volatile tribal regions bordering Afghanistan in order to keep the Islamists in his country quiet. Bush reportedly took up this issue and seems to have concluded that Musharraf remains committed to fighting terrorism at least in the near-term.

Bush also made it clear that Pakistan's future lay in establishing democracy and stressed the importance of elections in 2007. There was also no indication of any intent on the part of the U.S. to mediate on the Kashmir issue and Bush categorically asked Islamabad to deal directly with New Delhi. Making it clear that there was no question of a nuclear deal with Pakistan similar to the one with India, the clearest message from Bush's trip was that, henceforth, Pakistan and India would be treated differently by the U.S. While Pakistan remains a front-line state in the U.S. war on terrorism, its special place in U.S. foreign policy does not extend much further than that interest.


Bush's visit to South Asia highlighted the changing contours of U.S. policy toward the region. The U.S. and India are both trying to adjust to the ongoing redistribution of the world's economic and political power, and the U.S.-India nuclear deal is an attempt to craft a strategic partnership that can serve the interests of both states in the coming years. It is now up to the U.S. Congress to decide whether it agrees with the Bush administration's strategy for the future.

Report Drafted By:
Dr. Harsh V. Pant

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of All comments should be directed to

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