Five balancing acts

PRATAP BHANU MEHTA

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THERE is little doubt that the recently concluded nuclear pact between India and the United States is of unprecedented historical significance. It is in some ways an emphatic acknowledgment of India’s transformation from a regional to a global power. The deal is an important step in transforming the rules of the world order to accommodate the aspirations of a rising power. And within the context of Indo-US relations, it represents a bold gamble by the United States to align India’s interests with its own.

To give credit to the US, its establishment has grasped India’s potential even more than India’s ruling classes have. It has recognized that the momentum of India’s economy, the stability of its political institutions, and the complex amalgam of values it brings to the world, will make India a force to reckon with. President Bush has taken a preemptive measure to ensure that India’s priorities are shaped in alignment with the US rather than against it. India, on the other hand, has always been susceptible to a post-colonial clamour for recognition. And what better acknowledgment could India have wished for than having a coming out party hosted by the United States.

But the danger for India is the extent to which this clamour for recognition will now fundamentally alter its conception of its own identity in the world. While the euphoria in India is focused on the accolades it is receiving, the really hard questions about the direction of Indian foreign policy are being avoided. What kind of power does India want to be? Does it want to play the same power game that the current big powers have played? Does it want to focus exclusively on its own interests or work for the interests of the world order? What are its strategic and political aspirations? What really are its nuclear objectives?

Part of what one thinks of the recent turn in Indo-US relations depends upon the answers to these questions. But these answers are rarely explicitly articulated in the debates in India. All kinds of euphemisms like ‘enlightened self interest’ or ‘autonomy’ are bandied about without their content being given explicit articulation. That there is a paradigm shift underway in India’s foreign policy is undeniable. That a lot of this shift, in so far it involves a broader and deeper engagement with the rest of the world rather than a stance of cloistered virtue, is all for the good. But precisely what we are aiming at remains unclear, and it is much too easy to represent the Indo-US deal as a triumphant moment when your long-term objectives remain clouded in a fog of uncertainty.

Great historical moments are over-determined in their meaning and reveal their true significance only in the future. The deal involved not one, but five different balancing acts. While the balance sheet of strategic benefits involved in this relationship is unlikely to be catastrophic for India’s interests, it is certainly less beneficial to India than supporters of the deal are letting on. But India is underestimating the long-term political consequences of this deal – for its own interests, the interests of the world and its identity as a nation.

 

The deal was expected to be a balancing act between India’s desire to maintain maximum autonomy over its military nuclear programme and the rest of the world’s desire to see that programme capped. And while the former aspects are being highlighted in India, the latter dominate the discussion in the US. Since all details are not available, at this juncture it appears that the deal gives some advantages to India. While India has agreed to safeguards for its civilian reactors in perpetuity, it has artfully tied them to assurances on uninterrupted supply of fuel. It has retained the right to designate future nuclear plants as civilian or military, it can divert indigenous fuel entirely for military use, and the number of plants kept outside the purview of inspection seems large enough to allow it a significant military nuclear programme.

But will these benefits be enough to sustain a credible military nuclear programme, assuming that India wants one? Two reasons suggest, not quite. First, we will now inevitably divert more resources to imported technologies rather than invest in our own programmes and capabilities. While this is not a necessary consequence of this deal, we may now be tempted to invest hugely in buying technologies provided by others than supporting our own establishment. But most significantly, in the draft legislation that President Bush is proposing to Congress to allow the deal to be ratified, there will be a clear restriction that the deal will be off if India engages in any testing of its nuclear arsenal, including sub-critical testing. This effectively means that India’s military nuclear programme has to develop without any means of testing.

It is wildly implausible to suppose that one can develop a credible nuclear programme without some means of testing. This is even more so the case for India, which has developed its own technology that still has not been adequately tested. Pakistan, since it has relied on borrowed technology, can piggyback on the history of Chinese tests for the credibility of its arsenal. But what is disquieting is how little this restriction is being discussed openly in the Indian press. We are, through this deal, signing the CTBT and more without signing it!

 

There may be good reasons to do so, especially for those who think we should not be in a nuclear race in the first place. Supporters of the deal are trotting out the line that this restriction will merely formalize what is already a voluntary commitment on India’s part. But this reply is plainly disingenuous, because there is a significant distinction between voluntary abstinence and legal compliance that will be subject to annual scrutiny by the US Congress. It is also disingenuous because it rests on the assumption that India can both have a credible deterrent and abjure testing for all time.

It may be in our interests, and in the interests of the world at large, for us to abjure testing. But then we should at least publicly acknowledge that this is what we are doing and not justify the deal on the specious ground that it maintains our autonomy in military nuclear matters. And if we want to formalize this restriction on testing, why do it in a bilateral treaty? Why not propose these restrictions through multilateral instruments and gain worldwide political capital? Why not strengthen multilateral instruments and regimes, and become a genuine voice for non-proliferation, rather than a power that cuts special deals for itself?

 

The second balancing act is this. Will accommodating India weaken the non-proliferation regime? As a practical matter it could be argued that states like Iran and North Korea will do whatever they wish to do regardless of the choices made with respect to India. The choices of countries to go nuclear will be determined by their perception of security threats and the compulsions of their domestic politics, not by the choices that third countries make. India’s being treated as an exception is not arbitrary but principled. India satisfies the criteria of what is called a ‘responsible’ nuclear power: a democratic country that does not engage in proliferation. Iran, Pakistan, North Korea or for that matter China do not meet this criteria.

But while a principled case can be made for accepting India, this deal further legitimizes the possession of nuclear weapons. If legitimizing nuclear weapons as such poses a risk to the world order, this deal enhances those risks. India often makes the case that unlike Pakistan and China, it has an exemplary non-proliferation record. But the idea of an exemplary non-proliferation record is an ambiguous one. It could mean that a country has not exported nuclear technologies, which India has not. But the wider and more potent meaning of the term non-proliferation is this: does a country recognize the legitimacy of possessing nuclear weapons? In this sense we are not on the side of non-proliferation. By what locus standi can we tell any other country to abjure from having nuclear weapons? India is claiming too much for itself when it asserts that its deal will not weaken the non-proliferation norm.

The third issue is this. The interdependence of India’s economy with that of the United States is only set to increase. This deal will give that inter-dependence unprecedented momentum. India now becomes an attractive market for nuclear and advanced technologies worth billions of dollars. Both sides are justifying the deal in economic terms. India’s ruling classes are convinced that nuclear power is necessary for its energy security, that it is the only viable answer to India’s acute power shortages. The US also wants to re-legitimize the worldwide use of nuclear power as the only alternative to burning hydrocarbons. But India needs a more sober and less harried debate on nuclear energy.

 

For one, even if India produces, thirty to forty thousand mega watts of nuclear power its effect on hydrocarbon emissions will be negligible. So it is a little bit of a stretch to sell the nuclear deal as a panacea for our environmental problems. And given the fact that we have not, as yet, entombed even one reactor, the prospect of entombing dozens and guaranteeing the safe long-term disposal of waste is a daunting one.

Second, the world is on the cusp of a series of breakthroughs in the technology of electricity generation. Much of this technology focuses on decentralized power generation. The opportunity cost we will incur through this deal is this. Are we locking ourselves too prematurely into mega-sized nuclear energy projects? Given that in India challenges are at least as much in distribution as in production, does huge investment in centralized nuclear plants make sense as a cornerstone of our energy strategy? Does this not commit us to an inflexible energy strategy? We have been too besotted by George Bush’s romance with nuclear energy as a panacea to the world’s problems.

Will dependence on nuclear power really give India the energy security its needs? Although the terms of the deal safeguard the import of uranium, will it be wise for India to base its energy security on imported supplies of uranium? One of the things we forget is that countries like China that are increasing their reliance on nuclear power at least have their own indigenous sources of nuclear fuel supply. From the point of view of security, it is odd to argue that mortgaging ones nuclear programme to imported fuel supplies increases ones security. Indeed, if we do want to go the nuclear energy route it makes more sense to invest in developing our own models, based on fuel supplies that we can control. And are the economic arguments in favour of nuclear power over alternative sources so compelling that it becomes the cornerstone of India’s development strategy?

 

While the desirability of India’s energy strategy can be debated in technical terms, the political consequences of this deal are far more uncertain than India is acknowledging. The nuclear deal is simply one aspect of an Indo-US relationship that is acquiring unprecedented momentum. For the first time in its history the fortunes of India’s elites are so comprehensively and intimately tied up with the fate of America. Can India be so materially and culturally bound with the United States and yet resist seeing world geopolitics through American eyes? While formally India acknowledges that it will not always align with the United States, there are signs that India is very subtly internalizing the terms of discourse through which the US describes the world order.

Take for instance, the war on terrorism. India and the United States have emphatically reiterated their common interest in defeating terrorism. But it is still not clear that it makes sense for India to buy into the idea that there is a single kind of terrorism or a united war against it. India was a victim of terrorism that had its roots in the geopolitics of South Asia, not in the militant Islam that targets the West. Both are different entities that require different kinds of responses. India’s strategy of military self-restraint in the face of terrorism has also been politically prudent, while the US military actions have, arguably, given terrorism more aid and succour. Is India now in danger of being drawn into the confrontation between militant Islam and the West, a confrontation that is not of its making?

 

The fifth balancing revolves around what might be called the China factor. The United States is very clear that India should be projected as some sort of counter-weight to Chinese power. It is odd not to help build India while the Chinese juggernaut roles on unabated. While not acknowledging it overtly, India is also preoccupied with containing Chinese influence. What effect will the deal have on India’s relations with China? The answer to this question depends a good deal on how US-China relations evolve in the future. If relations between the US and China worsen, India, by aligning with the United States, risks becoming a frontline state in that confrontation.

But while the prospects of such a scenario should not be exaggerated, there is a more immediate cause for worry. Even as the US has emphatically rejected equating India and Pak-istan in any nuclear order, will China do the same? Some argue that China will assist Pakistan, regardless of what India does. But does an increasing alignment with the United States raise China’s stakes in the subcontinent? Will it now be tempted to scale up its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan? China has also offered Bangladesh civilian nuclear cooperation. Have we too prematurely given up attempts to throw cold water on the nuclearization of the subcontinent? We are delighted at the fact that George Bush gave Pakistan a dressing down. But while we should celebrate that India and Pakistan are being de-hyphenated in US thinking, we should not, at the same time, overlook that we could risk intensifying nuclear rivalry on the subcontinent.

The prospect of Pakistan and Bangladesh possessing significant numbers of civilian nuclear reactors is not one that the world, at this juncture, should contemplate with a great deal of equanimity. As the Iran crisis has demonstrated, the line between civilian and military nuclear use is, to put it mildly, a contentious one. In the chessboard of great power politics, the moves of every nation, knight or rookie, are equally important. In that sense, the Indo-US deal is not just a bilateral pact; it will have consequences for the behaviour of other nations. And prudence requires that India acknowledge that those consequences are a lot more uncertain than it pretends.

 

But fundamentally this deal represents a significant reshaping of India’s identity. ‘Non-alignment’ has become a dirty word in Indian discourse, associated with a weak-kneed, hypocritical moralism that produced only cheap talk. But non-alignment was a counsel of prudence as well, one that enjoined us to try and throw cold water on the principle axes of conflict in the world by not overly aligning with one side or the other.

Despite the current illusions that we don’t really have any tough choices to make, that alignment with the United States will have no repercussions for our relations with the rest of the world, we should brace ourselves for the fact that we are being asked to take sides in conflicts around the globe, and we are not taking these sides on our own terms. Second, we are forgetting a cardinal principle of international relations, that the persistence of great power should be seen as a provocation. At the moment, the exercise of US power around the world is only exacerbating conflict rather than diminishing it, and we need to think of alternative frameworks and alliances to mitigate the effects of this power.

 

Third, India is acquiring the bizarre view that enlightened national interest alone would be sufficient to provide it security. Indeed, there is a self-conscious revolt in India against multilateralism, or thinking of the stability of the world in its totality. So long as we have the United States on our side, we can thumb our nose at the world. Indeed, the worrying aspect of the deal is how much like the US we want to become – not with respect to its domestic institutions, but with respect to its foreign policy: unilateral, oriented towards hegemony more than stability of the world, and besotted with its own sense of power. But this deal rests on too narrow a view of India’ security concerns.

We should invest in creating a more stable world order rather than staying mute in the face of US power. Any country that supposes that enlightened national interest can be a substitute for thinking about the stability of the world order as a whole is deluding itself, as the United States frequently does. But the irony is that India’s deal with the US is not in its enlightened self-interest whichever way you look at it: in realist terms, India has accepted more restrictions than it is owning up to; in idealist terms, we are giving up our ability to play an imaginative and mediating role in world affairs.

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