Gaurav Kampani

Hammering out an Indo-US nuclear deal

After seven rounds of negotiations, the momentum in the Indo-US nuclear dialogue has slowed. Strobe Talbott's recent policy speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington and subsequent statements by Prime Minister Vajpayee in Parliament reveal that although substantial ground has been covered, fundamental differences remain.

The United States has demanded that India accede unconditionally to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, declare a moratorium on fissile material production, institute a legal regime to prevent the export of sensitive weapon technologies, and observe voluntary nuclear restraint. Indian diplomatic efforts, on the other hand, have attempted to persuade the United States to acquiesce to the post-Pokhran strategic reality and relax economic and technological sanctions.

At the heart of the negotiations lie two divergent goals. America's prime objective is to repair the breach in the nonproliferation regime by bringing India within its ambit; it is also determined to institutionalise nuclear stability in South Asia at the lowest possible level of weaponisation. In contrast, India's central goals are the attainment of strategic autonomy and tacit recognition from the United States of its de facto status as a nuclear weapon state.

It is now evident that India's signature to the CTBT and the enactment of formal export control laws are points of little political contention. Despite lingering scientific doubts over the yield of the May tests and suspicion that the thermonuclear device failed, India's nuclear establishment has expressed confidence that a test ban will not be an impediment in the path of weaponisation.

In effect, by declaring a test moratorium, India is already adhering to the objectives of the treaty. As India's Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, concluded in an earlier Foreign Affairs article, "all that remains is India's formal signature." Thus, it is unlikely that the CTBT's entry into force will be delayed beyond September 1999.

Political congruence also extends to the question of export controls. Among the first and second tier nuclear and missile states, India alone has the unique distinction of neither exporting weapons nor technologies of mass destruction. Therefore, formalising India's hitherto unpublicised nuclear and missile export guidelines and modifying them to match those of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime should not pose an insurmountable political hurdle.

Negotiations have stalled over the vexing questions of (a) India's nuclear force architecture and subsequent deployment posture, and (b) fissile material production. The Clinton administration has abandoned its earlier goal of seeking a "roll back" in India's nuclear capability; it now hopes to "cap" it. In pursuit of this goal, the United States has insisted that India abide by a nuclear restraint regime, which would halt further nuclear weaponisation, restrict ballistic missile tests, and forestall the overt deployment of nuclear forces. Such a regime would also freeze India's fissile material stock at its current level.

Although the nature of India's proposed nuclear deterrent remains elusive, the Vajpayee government has rejected the notion of a restraint regime outright. While India has conceded privately that it does not seek nuclear parity with China, it remains committed to deploying a "minimum deterrent." Similarly, India has declined to declare a moratorium on fissile material production ahead of a multilaterally negotiated treaty at the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva.

The US's insistence on nuclear restraint is predicated primarily on two assumptions. First, there is the concern that India's replication of the trappings of a de jure nuclear weapon state would be a body blow to the nonproliferation regime. It would set an example for other rogue states to emulate. It would also prepare the ground for defections from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty that at some stage might result in an exodus. The ensuing collapse of the nonproliferation regime could potentially lead to the emergence of a nuclearised international system, the management of which would become a security nightmare.

Second, nuclear restraint is considered vital to prevent crisis instability in South Asia. Both India and Pakistan exist in close geographical proximity; they have a history of conflict and their political systems are characterised by instability. Political miscalculation, organisational failure, or a breakdown in command and control could result in a nuclear exchange. A nuclear conflict would not only have catastrophic consequences for South Asia, but more ominously, it would end the international taboo against nuclear weapons use.

India's rationale for a nuclear deterrent is entirely different.

First, India views the global nonproliferation regime as discriminatory. It is loathe to accept a global nuclear order that legitimises the possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of a few in gross disregard to the security concerns of the vast majority.

Second, India's strategic elite believes that nuclear weapons constitute symbols of modernity and technological excellence that place India on par with the most advanced states in the international system. The prevailing consensus is that India needs nuclear weapons to consolidate its strategic profile as the sixth pole in a post-Cold War polycentric world order.

Finally, New Delhi seeks a deterrent as a hedge against potential nuclear threats from Pakistan and China.

Given the vast gulf that separates the US and Indian positions, the potential for a nuclear deal rests on the ability of the negotiating parties to realistically appraise ground realities, demonstrate political flexibility, and creatively bridge the remaining differences. Nuclear reconciliation can occur if both India and the United States honestly acknowledge and address each other's core concerns. For India, this would entail formal participation in the nonproliferation regime. On its part, the United States must politically concede India's sovereign right to strategic autonomy.

To arrive at an honest compromise, the United States must countenance the fact that nuclear proliferation in South Asia has already occurred. In fact, proliferation occurred in 1974 when India conducted its first nuclear test under the guise of a peaceful nuclear explosion. No Indian government is likely to accept unilateral nuclear disarmament. In this regard, economic and technological sanctions can increase the cost and slowdown the pace of proliferation. Sanctions however, cannot prevent determined national elites from acquiring nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.

Similarly, for India to continue carping on the unjustness of the nonproliferation regime would also be a mistake. After all, it is not in India's national interest to support unbridled global or regional nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, India's nuclear policy is not determined solely by security considerations. India's nuclear fetish has a lot to do with political symbolism, self-esteem, and vested bureaucratic interests.

From a military perspective, India already has the requisite capability to deter nuclear threats from Pakistan. That capability was acquired in 1990. The nuclear threat from China is a potential one. As such, there is no compelling strategic rationale for India to deploy and operationalize a nuclear deterrent against China in the short-term.

Therefore, as the first step towards a nuclear bargain, India must link accession to the CTBT to the formal lifting of all economic sanctions by the United States. Although the bulk of the economic sanctions that were imposed in May 1998 have been waived, sanctions that prevent IMF and World Bank lending to India remain in force. India must insist that these be revoked to create a positive and non-coercive atmosphere before India can sign the treaty. Signature to the CTBT, however, is different from ratification.

India's ratification, a step necessary to bring the CTBT into force, must be made conditional on (a) the US executive branch obtaining and implementing a permanent sanctions waiver from Congress that ends the linkage between nuclear detonations and economic sanctions in India's case and (b) ratification of the CTBT by the US Senate.

Next, India must determine the contours of a nuclear restraint regime in South Asia in a manner that safeguards its core security concerns while at the same time balances off the US's nonproliferation agenda. The idea behind restraint is to enable India to develop and validate an entire spectrum of technologies as a hedge against potential regional nuclear threats; the objective, nevertheless, would be to hold such technologies and assets in a recessed mode to minimise their economic cost and reduce the probability of an accidental nuclear exchange.

Restraint would not be tantamount to a freeze in perpetuity. Rather, the idea would be more akin to that of a nuclear ladder with a finite number of rungs representing different levels of weaponization in an ascending order. The technical and force posture parameters along each rung could be jointly determined through negotiations with the United States. However, movement along the rungs would remain a function of India's sovereign decision-making.

To achieve positive security gains however, a restraint regime should be tied to:

a. A Pakistani agreement to similar arrangements;

b. Bilateral exchange of a "no-first-use" pledge with China;

c. The setting up of a joint Indo-US Intelligence Task Force to monitor and halt nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan and;

d. the relaxation of US denials to India of high-tech conventional weaponry, civilian space technologies, high-speed computers, advanced materials, and precision machine tools.

A restraint regime would have several advantages. First, it would forestall a nuclear and missile race in South Asia. Second, it would prevent a resource haemorrhage from badly needed conventional force modernisation. Third, there would be increased pressures on China and North Korea to halt nuclear and missile-related transfers to Pakistan. Fourth, India would gain access to technologies critical to modernise its industrial and military base.

Finally, India would retain the full spectrum of technological capabilities to rapidly deploy a minimum deterrent if warranted by a deteriorating security scenario.

Lastly, there is the question of fissile material stocks. India's reluctance to declare a unilateral moratorium on fissile material production could be the consequence of two concerns. First, India may have an insufficient stock of fissile material to meet the requirements of a minimum deterrent. Hence, it may want to make good that deficit before negotiations on a global fissban treaty are completed.

Alternatively, Indian negotiators might simply be using the issue of fissile material production as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with the United States.

One way out of the impasse for India would be to draw a line between the civilian and military components of its nuclear programme. Civilian reactors are unsuitable for fissile material production. Research reactors that burn nuclear fuel at a low-burn rate are best suited for producing weapons-grade fissile material.

Hence, India should not be averse to opening its power-generation reactors to international inspections and safeguards in exchange for technical co-operation in areas of reactor safety, radioactive waste disposal, and reactor decommissioning.

Further, if fissile material stocks sufficient to meet the requirements of a minimum deterrent have been accumulated, then India should seriously consider bringing its research reactors and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities under international safeguards. The quid pro quo, of course, would be to seek a lifting of the NSG embargo on the sales of civilian nuclear technologies to India.

An Indo-US nuclear deal is thus certainly feasible. Nonetheless, it requires political will, imagination, and creative policy making. The United States must recognise that a nonproliferation regime that does not guarantee states' fundamental security interests is unsustainable. For India as well, to make a fetish out of nuclear weapons in a world that has begun to move away from nuclear weapons-related security would be a grave historical error. The key therefore is engagement.

Failure to arrive at a nuclear modus vivendi would not only render the breach in the nonproliferation regime irreparable, but it would also set the stage for a serious confrontation that could delay India's emergence as a great power in the international system.

Gaurav Kampani is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the CNS or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.