Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:54 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:54 | SYDNEY

India-US nuclear deal: Good versus good?


Rory Medcalf


23 July 2008 18:01

It was more than just a show, although as political theatre it was cringingly compelling. The televised drama on the floor of the Indian Parliament in the past two days has profound global policy ramifications, including piquantly for Australia. Amid some of the most intense and bitter argument, horse-trading and mudslinging in India’s boisterous parliamentary history — including allegations of bribery  — the Congress-led coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has defeated a vote of no confidence over its decision to press ahead with a civil nuclear co-operation deal with the United States.

The deal is aimed at ending India’s sanction-bound isolation from global nuclear commerce, allowing it to develop its struggling domestic nuclear energy sector with international technology and fuel, in return for India’s separating its civilian and military nuclear programs and putting the former under safeguards monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Singh has stared down domestic critics on the Communist Left, who claim the deal will bring India too close to the United States, and on the Hindu nationalist Right, who variously wish they had achieved the deal themselves or allege that it will greatly restrict India’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

Often pronounced close to death throughout much of its three-year gestation, the deal lives. This poses serious dilemmas for the foreign, non-proliferation and climate change policies of Australia and other countries in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It is now only a matter of weeks before this international body is confronted with a decision: whether to grant India a special exemption to its guidelines regarding the export of civilian nuclear fuel and technology.

Many of the 45 NSG members will now come under strong and contradictory pressures. The Singh government will portray the issue as a measure of who are India’s true friends, and will stress India’s need for emissions-free energy to lift its people out of poverty without a massive climate impact. Washington, too, will pull out all stops: this will be the test for whether friends and allies share its vision of helping India become a major world power. The Bush Administration will perceive its last best chance to salvage a legacy.

Meanwhile much of the international non-proliferation lobby, especially non-government organisations, experts and civil society movements in Western countries, will campaign hard against allowing civilian nuclear trade with India — a country which possesses nuclear weapons but cannot sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for as long as it keeps them. They will warn of real harm to the NPT and the wider global regime of agreements and understandings that prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. After all, the set of bargains encompassed by the NPT include the relinquishing of any right to possess nuclear weapons in return for international co-operation in peaceful nuclear technology, yet the US deal would allow India the latter without the former. India, for its part, has always argued it deserves the same rights as the five countries — the US, Russia, the UK, France and China — that the treaty allows to possess nuclear weapons on the condition that they work towards giving them up.

There should be no pretending that the NSG vote will be a clear-cut or pain-free decision for Canberra or any other government that cares simultaneously about such weighty matters as nuclear non-proliferation, a multilateral treaty-based approach to world order, relations with the superpower, the goodwill of Asia’s second rising power, climate change, or the rights of India’s population to a better quality of life. But that’s statecraft, a tragic business: not a clash of good and evil, but a clash of good and good.

Making a new double standard to accommodate India is not a good example to set for other countries which might still secretly be wondering if one day they can acquire nuclear weapons and sanctions-free respectability too — even though this message would never be the chief reason why they would opt for the bomb. So supporters of the deal have a duty, at the very least, to identify what they will do to offset any ensuing negative signals on non-proliferation.

But opponents of the deal have an obligation to propose a workable alternative. How else to accommodate and manage the interests, needs, aspirations and environmental impact of one of the major powers of the new century, which by dint of its sheer human scale cannot be treated as just another country? Some suggest that the idea of a nuclear deal with India is not in itself the problem — it is just that the terms of the current deal concede too much and ask too little. The deal and associated texts are inconsistent and fuzzy on what happens if India tests another bomb. Yet after Singh’s tortuous struggle to win domestic support for the current agreement, it is difficult to imagine how a tougher one would stand a chance in the political bearpit of the world’s mega-democracy.