Taking Stock Of U.S.-India Nuclear Relations


President George W Bush and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 123 nuclear deal was considered to be a breakthrough in U.S.-India nuclear relations and India’s pursuit of nuclear energy. Although officially conceived through the US-India nuclear agreement in July, 2005, U.S.-India nuclear relations date back even further. However, this watershed moment in bilateral relations between the nations has a history with its fair share of successes and failures.

India has always opposed the 1970 Non Proliferation Treaty and was not recognised as a legitimate Nuclear Weapon State because it acquired nuclear weapons capability after 1970. After India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974, it faced criticism from international quarters and Nuclear Weapon States including the USA. India also refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As a result, India became a nuclear pariah and faced sanctions under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. It was further isolated from the international nuclear regime after the Nuclear Suppliers Group prohibited other nations from nuclear trade with India. Isolation was in the interest of American foreign policy during Cold War because of India’s perceived support for the Soviet Union, despite its role in the Non-Aligned Movement. This nuclear isolation continued after the Cold War and India successfully tested its second nuclear bomb explosion in 1998.  It became an overtly nuclear-armed state, attracting widespread condemnation from the international community. However, the 2000s saw a warming of relations between Washington and New Delhi as a result of India’s status as an emerging major power in Asia. In July 2008, after months of domestic and international negotiations President George W. Bush signed the legislation to enact the landmark US-India civilian nuclear agreement.

Under this agreement, India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and placed all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In exchange, the United States agreed to work towards civil nuclear cooperation with India and approached the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to grant a waiver to India to commence civilian nuclear trade. The 48-nation NSG granted the waiver to India on September 6, 2008 – allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology from other supplier nations. The approval allowed the nation to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world without relinquishing its nuclear weapons or being a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. An end to the three-decade old ban on nuclear trade with India was a “watershed moment in the history of US-India relations, marking a transition from a lukewarm and sometimes downright adversarial engagement during the Cold War to the warm glow of, if not quite a strategic partnership, then more of a joint venture,” said Subrata Ghoshroy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thus, the waiver ended India’s status as a nuclear pariah and recognised the nation as the de facto sixth nuclear power.

It can be argued that the accord intended to achieve two primary objectives: economic and strategic. India’s status as an emerging market with enormous economic potential was one of the primary reasons in the thawing of US-India relations. The U.S. expected the deal to spur India’s economic growth, of which the U.S. wanted a share. “At one time, US policy toward India focused nearly entirely on nuclear weapons concerns, with Washington and New Delhi on opposite sides of the issue. The civil nuclear agreement changed that”, a report of the Council of Foreign Relations concluded. In return for India separating its civilian nuclear facilities from its military program, and opening up the civilian facilities to inspections by the IAEA, India could keep its weapons program without scrutiny. All sanctions on India were lifted, allowing it import nuclear related technology and material including uranium.

The deal also provided a strategic advantage to both nations. Since the end of the Cold War, many advisers called for improved strategic ties with India and an abandonment of the combined “India-Pakistan” policy. The United States also saw India as a viable stabiliser to the growing influence of China in the region. For India, the deal was a de facto admission of its entry in the “nuclear club” without being a signatory to the NPT. Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency praised the deal as it brought “India closer as an important partner in the non-proliferation regime”. The Bush administration justified the agreement as a stepping stone to advance the non-proliferation framework through a recognition of India’s longstanding non-proliferation record without being a signatory of the NPT. Through the deal, India now enjoys many of the privileges offered to the nuclear weapon states recognised under the NPT.

Reactions from international scholars was mixed. While some praised the agreement as one that brought India closer to the NPT regime, others argued that it gave India too much flexibility in determining which facilities were to be safeguarded and effectively rewarded India for continuously refusing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Other experts say that the deal lays out the requirements for India to be recognised as a responsible holder of nuclear power. “This is part of a process of making India a more durable and reliable nuclear partner,” said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Supporters of the deal claim it would encourage India to accept international safeguards on facilities and recognise India’s history of imposing voluntary safeguards on its nuclear program. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace claims that the deal recognises this by engaging India, which has proven it is not a nuclear proliferation risk. It would also foster similar nuclear export standards as those imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Critics argue that the deal undermines the global non-proliferation regime and curtails progress towards disarmament. It is also argued that the agreement is overly beneficial for India and lacks sufficient safeguards to prevent New Delhi from continuing to produce nuclear weapons. The deal also does not require India to restrict the number of nuclear weapons it plans to produce.

Generally, the deal has improved US-India trade and defence cooperation, liberalised the Indian economy, and partially aligned Indian foreign policy with that of the United States. However, the abandonment of a combined “India-Pakistan” policy has aggravated tensions between India, Pakistan and the US. Scholars claim that by practising contrasting approaches to both nations’ nuclear arsenals, the agreement did prolonged damage to the global non-proliferation norms and disarmament.

The 2014 election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once denied entry to the US due to his alleged involvement in the Gujrat riots, etched a new phase in US-India nuclear relations. Tellis called the Modi visit “a culmination of what Obama has tried to do since he came into office, adding that “executive branch to executive branch — that is a dramatic transformation where the US today sees India as a security partner of choice in the broader Indo-Pacific region.” President Obama and Prime Minister Modi announced the formation of a contact group to handle nuclear liability issue through a state-backed insurance covering supplier liability of up to $244 million, with additional costs of up to $300 million supported by the Indian Government through the International Monetary Fund. India also acceded to the UN Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage while the US withdrew its demand that India allow US agencies to track all the fissile material supplied by the United States during a three-day visit to India in January 2015. India also signed an additional protocol to the India-specific agreement with the IAEA for the application of safeguards to Indian civilian nuclear facilities.

In recent months, the United States has attempted to provide India membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. However, China demanded Pakistan’s inclusion in the group in exchange for India’s membership. In June 2016, India’s hope for entry suffered a setback in Seoul due to unrelenting opposition from China.  US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon expressed his “regret” that Washington was unsuccessful in making India a member of the nuclear coalition. “We regret, in Seoul, we and India, were unable to open space necessary to allow India to move into the NSG at this moment,” he said. Shannon also called India an “anchor of stability” in Asia and wants New Delhi to play a major role in the region to counter China’s growing activities in the South China Sea. Describing India as a responsible and important player in the sphere of nuclear non-proliferation, Shannon said “we are committed to having India join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. We believe that through the kind of work we have done, the civil nuclear agreement, and the way India conducted itself, it is worthy of this”. India also recently gained entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) which Shannon highlighted was demonstrative of India as a “responsible and important player in the road to non-proliferation”.

Scholars agree that relations between the US and India are only going to grow and expand. “This is just the beginning of that change,” Tellis said. “If you look at the kind of economic transformations that are underway, we are in the beginning of a very long cycle of change in Indian capabilities. And this is just about 10 or 15 years old. It hasn’t peaked yet. We’ve got a couple of decades for this to continue,” she said. However, the deal does place the future of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation regime under intense jeopardy.

Nishtha Sharma