Previous U.S. administrations adopted the stance that India’s nuclear arsenal, which was first tested in 1974, was illegitimate and should be eliminated or at least seriously constrained. They did so for two reasons. First, they feared that legitimating the Indian arsenal might spur an arms race in Asia because Pakistan, India’s archrival, and China might be tempted to keep pace with India’s activities. Second, Washington wanted to stick strictly to the principles underlying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): parties to the treaty could engage in peaceful nuclear commerce; states that stood outside the NPT regime, such as India, could not. U.S. policymakers feared that compromising these principles might both give states with nuclear aspirations reason to think they could get around the NPT if they waited long enough and dishearten those other states that loyally supported the treaty against proliferators.
A stance, however, is not a policy. And eliminating India’s arsenal became an increasingly unrealistic stance when Pakistan went nuclear in the 1980s — and then became a fantasy in 1998, when India tested five bombs underground and openly declared itself a nuclear power. After India’s tests, the Clinton administration sought to nudge New Delhi in directions that would limit counteractions by China and Pakistan and above all prevent an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war. All the while Washington firmly maintained that U.S. recognition of India’s nuclear status was a long way off. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, which prompted Washington to take a fresh look at U.S. policies in South Asia, the Bush administration first reached out to Pakistan to secure its help against Islamist terrorists.
But then it also turned toward New Delhi, and in the summer of 2005 finally granted India de facto nuclear recognition. In a stroke, Washington thereby invited India to join the ranks of China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom — the victors of World War II — as a legitimate wielder of the influence that nuclear weapons confer. When, earlier this year, the Bush administration negotiated the specific terms of its nuclear arrangement with New Delhi, Washington abandoned, against the advice of nonproliferation specialists, any efforts to condition the deal on constraints that would keep India from further increasing its nuclear arsenal.
Under the terms of the deal, the United States commits to behave, and urge other states to behave, as if India were a nuclear weapons state under the NPT, even though India has not signed the treaty and will not be required to do so. (Even if the Bush administration had wished to make India a de jure nuclear weapons state under the NPT, such a change probably would not have been possible, as it would have required unanimous approval by all 188 parties to the treaty.) Washington has also undertaken to stop denying civil nuclear technology to India and has determined to require India to apply the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) only to nuclear facilities it designates as being for purely civil purposes. India is now also authorized to import uranium, the lack of which had long stalled the progress of its nuclear program.
Nuclear recognition will bring enormous political benefits to the Indian government. Naturally, the deal is popular with domestic constituencies, which were already well disposed toward the United States. (In 2005, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Indian respondents had a favorable view of the United States — the highest percentage among the 15 leading nations polled.) Singh supporters in the National Congress Party have downplayed the importance of the few obligations that India has undertaken, such as the commitment to voluntarily subject some of its nuclear facilities to inspections, a routine practice in all the other recognized nuclear states, including the United States. Criticism from the opposition BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has been narrow and technical — and it probably reflects the BJP’s chagrin that the agreement was secured while the National Congress Party was in power. Although some members of the marginal Left Front parties have criticized the terms of the deal, their complaints have smacked of antiquated NAM politics, and the detractors are unlikely to be able to block the deal’s approval by the Indian Parliament. Barring the imposition of new conditions by the U.S. Congress, the deal is thus likely to sail through the legislature in India.
American critics of the deal contend that India’s past behavior does not warrant this free pass. They argue that Washington should at least ask India to stop making fissile material for bombs, as the NPT’s acknowledged nuclear powers have already done, rather than wait for the proposed fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to come into existence. Others contend that India should be required to place more nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, to prevent any diversion of fissile materials from its nuclear power program to its nuclear weapons program. Still others want India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty rather than be allowed merely to abide by a unilateral moratorium on further underground testing, as it has done since 1998.
The Indian government, backed by Indian public opinion, has resisted all attempts to impose such technical constraints on its nuclear arsenal. So far, the U.S. government has effectively supported New Delhi’s position by insisting that the India deal is not an arms control treaty but a broader strategic agreement. The Bush administration has described the nuclear issue as the “basic irritant” in U.S.-Indian relations and has argued that once the issue is out of the way, India will become a responsible stakeholder in the nonproliferation regime, jettison its vestigial NAM posturing, take a more normal place in the diplomatic world — and become a strategic partner of the United States. […]
The real benefits of the India deal for Washington lie in the significant gains, especially in terms of security, that the broader strategic relationship could deliver down the road. For one thing, with New Delhi as an informal ally, Washington should expect to have India’s help in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even if India’s assistance would risk compromising its friendly relations with Iran. There have been some promising signs. At meetings of the IAEA Board of Governors over the past year, India joined the United States and its European partners in finding that Iran had violated its NPT obligations and then in referring the matter to the un Security Council — two welcome signs that India supports the international campaign to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Whether India actively cooperates with the United States against Iran or persists in offering rhetorical support for the spread of nuclear-fuel-cycle activities (uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing) will be the clearest test of whether nuclear recognition “brings India into the mainstream” of nonproliferation policy, as the Bush administration predicts will happen.
The United States will also want India’s assistance in dealing with a range of dangerous contingencies involving Pakistan. Pakistan’s stock of nuclear weapons, along with Russia’s, is the focus of urgent concern about nuclear terrorism. Whatever version of the A. Q. Khan story one believes — that the Pakistani government and military were unaware of Khan’s activities or that they permitted them — its moral is worrisome. It suggests that terrorists could buy or steal the materials (namely, plutonium or enriched uranium) necessary to building nuclear bombs from Pakistan thanks to diversion by radical elements in the Pakistani elite or if the Musharraf regime crumbles. And if an incident were to originate in Pakistan, the United States would want to respond in concert with as many regional players as possible, including India.
Such risks are still difficult for Washington and New Delhi to acknowledge publicly, however, as both governments try to maintain a delicately balanced relationship with Islamabad. The United States needs Pervez Musharraf’s support to search for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists on Pakistani territory, prevent the radicalization of Pakistan’s population, and stabilize Afghanistan; it can ill afford to be perceived as tilting too far toward India. The Indian government, for its part, also seems intent on improving its relations with Islamabad. But it is still reeling from the fallout of the bombings on the Indian Parliament last year, which have been attributed to Pakistani terrorists. And India, too, could be a victim of loose nukes in the event of disorder in Pakistan.
Down the road, the United States might also want India to serve as a counterweight to China. No one wishes to see China and the United States fall into a strategic contest, but no one can rule out the possibility of such a competition. The evolution of U.S.-Chinese relations will depend on the attitudes of China’s younger generation and new leaders, on Chinese and U.S. policies, and on unpredictable events such as a possible crisis over Taiwan. For now, the United States and India are largely eager to improve trade with China and are careful not to antagonize it. But it is reasonable for them to want to hedge against any downturn in relations with China by improving their relations with each other. Neither government wishes to talk publicly, let alone take actions now, to advance this shared interest, but they very well might in the future.
The India deal could also bring the United States more direct benefits, militarily and economically. Washington expects the intensification of military-to-military contacts and hopes eventually to gain the cooperation of India in disaster-relief efforts, humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping missions, and postconflict reconstruction efforts, including even operations not mandated by or commanded by the United Nations, operations in which India has historically refused to participate. Judging from the evolution of the United States’ security partnerships with states in Europe and Asia, the anticipation of such joint action could lead over time to joint military planning and exercises, the sharing of intelligence, and even joint military capabilities. U.S. military forces may also seek access to strategic locations through Indian territory and perhaps basing rights there. Ultimately, India could even provide U.S. forces with “over-the-horizon” bases for contingencies in the Middle East.
On the economic front, as India expands its civilian nuclear capacity and modernizes its military, the United States stands to gain preferential treatment for U.S. industries. The India deal theoretically creates economic opportunities in the construction of nuclear reactors and other power infrastructure in India. These should not be exaggerated, however. The United States would have to secure preferences at the expense of Russian and European competitors and would need to persuade India’s scientific community to focus its nuclear power expansion on conventional reactors rather than on the type of exotic and expensive technologies (for example, fast-breeder reactors) it currently favors. India is also expected to increase the scale and sophistication of its military, in part by purchasing weapons systems from abroad. The United States can reasonably anticipate some preferential treatment for U.S. vendors. Early discussions have concerned the sale of f-16 and f-18 tactical aircraft and p-3c maritime surveillance aircraft.