By Shyam Saran
Considering the storm and thunder that attended its birth, the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement appears to have receded from public consciousness. It was a deal which some regarded as providing India the veritable “keys to the kingdom”. Others condemned it as a dangerous trap designed to deprive India of its much vaunted political independence and its family jewels in the shape of its indigenous strategic programme. Today, it sits comfortably as an enabling asset, taken mostly for granted, in India’s diplomatic tool-kit.
A similar spectrum of positive and negative perceptions was to be found in Washington. Those opposing the deal saw it as a wrecking ball demolishing the nuclear non-proliferation edifice and handing India a trophy it did not deserve. The supporters saw the deal as the anointment of India as America’s ally, ready to align itself to America’s direction. And American business saw the deal as opening the door to India’s expanding market, not the least in the civil nuclear field.
The bandwidth between the two ends of the spectrum has narrowed as neither doom nor bloom has come to pass. The pendulum still swings a decade later this way and that, certainly among the ranks of Washington’s think tanks, but there, too, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal mostly enjoys the after-glow of an historic agreement.
The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal was both a reflection of the major transformation in Indo-U.S. relations since the end of the Cold War, as also a driver of their further transformation. The realignment of major power relations in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union began a process of transforming Indo-US relations from estrangement to engagement and a growing awareness of shared interests.
Neither side would have been able to contemplate such a significant departure from their established positions in a sensitive area such as the nuclear domain, if they had not already achieved a fair degree of congruence in their respective strategic perspectives as well as mutual confidence.
I see this process of growing convergence accelerating with the 14 rounds of talks between the then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott and India’s Jaswant Singh, who later served as Foreign Minister. These talks were held between June 1998 and July 2000 and focused on how the two countries should manage the fallout from the May 1998 nuclear tests undertaken by India.
These talks were inconclusive but they did establish that the U.S. would no longer aim to “put the genie back in the bottle” as Talbott put it and accepted the reality of India as a de facto nuclear weapon State.
Indian confidence in the U.S. was bolstered by the latter’s reaction to Pakistan’s Kargil adventure in May-July, 1999. The U.S. categorically endorsed the inviolability of the Line of Control and successfully pressured Pakistan to vacate the areas it had occupied on the Indian side of the LOC. India was henceforth effectively de-hyphenated from Pakistan in US calculations.
The Talbott - Jaswant talks and the U.S. support in the Kargil episode, created a positive environment for President Clinton’s successful visit to India in March 2000, when the sanctions imposed on India after the nuclear tests were also lifted.
India’s unambiguous support to the U.S. after the tragic events of 9/11 in 2001 and the sense it created of the two liberal democracies being on the same side in the global war on terror, the endorsement of President Bush’s ballistic missile defence (BMD) initiative and the visible prospects of a democratic India finally beginning to deliver on its immense economic promise, formed the backdrop of the next major initiative, the “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” which were announced in January 2004.
The NSSP, as it became known, detailed a series of reciprocal steps which would allow limited, but nevertheless, significant bilateral cooperation in the nuclear and space areas after a hiatus of several decades, clear the decks for supply of sensitive and dual use technologies and initiate discussions on possible cooperation in ballistic missile defence. In this context, India committed itself to aligning its export control regime with the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime.
There is another development which is worth taking into account and that is the close cooperation between the naval forces of India, U.S., Japan and Australia in December, 2004/January, 2005 to render assistance to countries in South and South-East Asia after the tsunami struck several countries, causing extensive death and devastation.
Indian naval forces were able to deliver prompt and substantial relief to countries far away from its shores. To the U.S. and its partners, India had established itself as a significant security provider in the Asia-Pacific region. India began to be seen as an indispensable partner in coping with the emerging security challenges in the region, in particular, the rapid emergence of China as a power with major economic and military capabilities.
This then is the backdrop to the historic July 18, 2005 Indo-U.S. Joint Statement, which committed the two countries to resume “full civil nuclear cooperation”. The nuclear deal should be seen as a culmination of a process of intense dialogue and engagement in the aftermath of the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998, which first interrupted, but then accelerated the transformation of Indo-U.S. ties that was already taking place since the end of the Cold War. The deal was made possible by the growing strategic congruence between the two countries; it did not create that congruence but certainly enhanced it.
The negotiations were unique in many ways. They were mandated by the leaders of the two countries and undertaken by negotiators answerable to them. This was a top-down process and one in which leaders remained involved and often intervened to achieve what they had set out to. There were at least three occasions on which the personal intervention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George Bush, helped overcome what may have appeared at the time as inseparable obstacles. Without their intervention at crucial junctures I doubt that we would have been successful.
There was the critical role of practical diplomacy in mobilizing support for the deal and this in many ways was a new and learning experience for both sides. This was the first time that Indian diplomats reached out directly to US senators and Congressmen seeking support for the deal. I must have made several rounds of Capitol Hill, spending hours persuading skeptics and enthusing those positively inclined.
The Embassy in Washington and the then Ambassador Ronen Sen were equally active in this respect. This was also the first time that the Indian-American community was mobilized in such a focused effort to line up U.S. Congressional support behind the deal. A parallel effort was made with the US business community. Here too, I must acknowledge the role played by Ronen Sen and his able colleagues in the Indian mission.
After the bilateral deal with the U.S. had been successfully concluded an even more complex set of negotiations had to be undertaken with the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in order to ensure a waiver for India from its own rules and guidelines. The U.S. undoubtedly helped but much of the burden fell again on Indian diplomacy.
Since the NSG works by consensus our challenge was all the more daunting. Sometime in 2007 I began to concentrate more on the NSG, leaving it to Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon to handle the bilateral track.
As Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, I must have travelled several thousand miles visiting countries like Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand persuading mostly skeptical interlocutors that India deserved their support for an India-specific waiver without accepting any constraint on its strategic programme.
In summit meetings the PM held with his counterparts this message was reinforced. In Vienna, our lobbying was relentless, sometimes frustrating, sometimes encouraging. Foreign Secretary Menon interacted with members of the NSG arguing India’s case persuasively and answering queries patiently. Away from the scene, the two National Security Advisors, M.K. Narayanan and Steve Hadley worked the phones and helped in facilitating the final consensus decision. But the prize was in hand on September 8 when the NSG adopted a consensus decision on giving India a clean waiver from its rules. India had finally made a successful re-entry into the international civilian nuclear market.
There is a perception that China played a blocking role at the NSG. It is true that China was opposed to the waiver but preferred to encourage the smaller countries, which had very rigid positions on non-proliferation, to take the lead in proposing killer amendments to the draft decision. On September 8 when it became clear that the last holdouts were going to vote in favour of the waiver, the Chinese mission sent a written communication to our delegation at the hotel, early that morning, conveying that China had decided to support the draft decision as formulated. They thus avoided being the last country to convey support.
Before engaging in negotiations it is important to have a clear mandate and red lines that must not be crossed. Knowing what the bottom line is gives the negotiator the flexibility to compromise and confidence in insisting on what cannot be conceded. We were fortunate that in these negotiations, the mandate given to us was clear and unambiguous.
The brief given to us by the then Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) was that we should seek the dismantling of technology denial regimes which were limiting our development prospects; that we should aim to re-integrate India into the international civil nuclear market as a fully entitled member and achieve this without accepting any constraint whatsoever on India’s strategic weapons programme.
When the Hyde Act was passed there was considerable controversy over its provisions, some pretty gratuitous, others prescriptive. However, what persuaded us to continue with the process was that the law gave India permanent and unconditional waivers from the key provisions of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which stipulate that the U.S. cannot engage in civil nuclear energy cooperation:
• With a State which has exploded a nuclear explosive device; India had done so as recently as in May 1998;
• With a state engaged in the production of a nuclear explosive device; which India is engaged in as a nuclear weapon state;
• With a state which does not have all its nuclear facilities under full-scope international safeguards, which of course India did not since several of its facilities would be in the non-civilian, non-safeguarded category.
These explicit waivers outweighed some of the other onerous provisions in the Act and became the basis of the “clean waiver” we were subsequently able to get from the NSG.
Another instance of a “red line” that was successfully defended was in respect of the separation of civilian from non-civilian nuclear facilities.
The U.S. initially insisted that this must include the separation of personnel as well and this would be subject to verification. This we could not accept in principle. This would also have been impractical. It would have required our accepting a level of intrusiveness which would be politically unpalatable. Hours before President (George W) Bush landed in Delhi in March 2006, this demand was repeated again and again with the threat that it could become a deal breaker. It was the confidence and assurance with which one declined this demand which led the U.S. to drop it and never raise it again.
Finally, India was able to successfully resist the demand to turn its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing into a legal commitment, both in the bilateral context with the U.S. and the multilateral context with the NSG as a condition for resumption of civil nuclear cooperation. This was a clear red line from the outset in the negotiations and we never wavered from it.
What did the nuclear deal achieve for India?
Most importantly it expanded India’s strategic space, enabling it to leverage its enhanced relationship with the U.S. to upgrade its relations with other partners as well. That the U.S. was prepared to take such a major initiative with India despite the risks to its non-proliferation objectives, put India in a category of major global players and Delhi as an indispensable destination for leaders across the globe.
The deal also led to the dismantling of most of the technology denial regimes operating against India since 1974 and which had been progressively expanded to cover most dual use items as well. The relaxation of export controls has also led to a significant increase in defence related trade and collaboration with the U.S. as well as with other partner countries. It is true that so far deals for setting up new nuclear plants have not been materialized. The nuclear liability law was an issue but now that it has been resolved we may begin to see some progress.
The deal has opened the way for India to conclude long term uranium supply agreements with several countries. This has enabled capacity utilization in our nuclear plants to reach 80-85%, when in 2005 shortage of fuel due to NSG restrictions had pushed utilization down to 30-35%.
India is very much in the international mainstream as far as nuclear issues are concerned despite continuing to be outside the NPT. Its membership of the NSG is being supported by the US and is likely to come through though there are challenges which need to be overcome through intensive diplomacy.
Almost 13 years after the deal was announced, India-U.S. relations are stronger than they have ever been. They may not have been if the nuclear deal had not cleared the decks of the negative legacies of the past and created a culture of engagement and dialogue.
Ten years of the deal was commemorated in Washington in 2015 and its importance was underlined by the U.S. Vice-President attending one event and delivering an important speech. What he said certainly resonates among those of us who were privileged to be associated with its negotiation. He observed that ultimately this deal was not so much about the nuclear issue as it was about India. It reminded me of similar remarks made to me by the Brazilian, Mexican and South African representatives just after the NSG waiver was extended to India on September 8, 2008. They conveyed their warm congratulations on a signal achievement against the most difficult odds but added, “Make no mistake this has been possible only because it was for India”.
(Excerpted from a 2015 lecture, delivered by the author, on the “The Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement.” The author, a former Indian foreign secretary, had played a pivotal role in negotiating the agreement)