Research: Commentary

Remarks by Director Selig S. Harrison at a Forum on "India, The United States and The World"

September 27, 2006 | Speech

By Selig S. Harrison

Remarks by Selig S. Harrison at a Forum on “India, The United States and The World,” Cosmos Club, Washington. September 27,2006

I’m going to focus today on the India-U.S. nuclear agreement now pending before congress. But first I want to make two basic points about U.S.-India relations to put the controversy over the nuclear agreement in perspective.

First, the central problem in U.S. relations with the rest of the world, including relations with India, is what I call the “only superpower complex.” This is the belief that it’s our manifest destiny to be number one, that it’s our duty to remain number one because it’s good for the world if we do, and that we’re therefore entitled to preserve our dominance by maintaining more and better nuclear weapons than anyone else and by ordaining who can and who cannot join the nuclear club.

Our belief in our right to nuclear dominance has long been the central obstacle to improved relations with India. India has been castigated for refusing to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty but the reason for its refusal is that the NPT legitimizes the existing inequitable global nuclear power structure. The NPT was based on a bargain spelled out in article six. The United States and the other original nuclear powers, including China, promised to phase out their nuclear weapons. In return, the non-nuclear powers agreed to remain non-nuclear. But article six did not have a timetable for nuclear disarmament. So India considered the NPT inherently inequitable and refused to sign.

The late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did develop a civilian nuclear power industry so India would have a nuclear weapons option, but he resisted pressures for nuclear weapons until his death and worked at the global level for nuclear disarmament.
After nehru, however, as it became increasingly clear that Washington and Moscow intended to maintain a nuclear-dominated world order, the hawks steadily gained ground. They warned that India would remain a second-rate power unless it invoked its nuclear option.

On June 9, 1988, Nehru’s grandson, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, hoping to contain the Hindu right, made an extraordinary proposal at the United Nations that we should keep in mind today. India and other potential nuclear weapons states would forgo nuclear weapons, he said, in exchange for a long term commitment by the existing nuclear powers to phase out their nuclear weapons over 22 years by 2010. He proposed a time bound agreement for phased reductions, starting with a 50 percent cut in U.S. and Soviet arsenals. Coincident with that, India and the other non-nuclear states would be committed immediately, under inspection, “not to cross the nuclear threshold.” The U.S. summarily rejected this offer, and that gave the initiative to the Hindu right in India and set the stage for India’s 1998 tests and its subsequent production of nuclear weapons.

I have reviewed this history because India’s refusal to sign the NPT and its decision to go nuclear are often condemned in the current debate over civilian nuclear cooperation. India is accused of violating international norms, but the reality is that the central provision of the NPT, article six, has been consistently violated by the five original nuclear powers. It is often ignored in the present debate that the NPT itself does not bar the sale of civilian nuclear technology to non-signatories such as India. It was the U.S. congress that did so in 1998 mainly to punish India for failing to sign the NPT. It is that 1998 law that the Bush Administration is now seeking to amend. The existing law has embittered India because it permits China, as a country that did sign the NPT as a nuclear weapons state, to buy nuclear technology from the U.S. and yet China has become a proliferator of nuclear technology while India has not been, even though it didn’t sign the treaty.

What critics of the agreement are really upset about is that it accepts India implicitly as a member of the nuclear club. We will only sell civilian nuclear technology to India and it will only be used under inspection for civilian purposes. But to do that we agreed to let India designate which of its reactors are civilian and which are military, thus formally accepting the existence of the military nuclear program for the first time. What the critics wanted the administration to do was to use the negotiations on the agreement to cap or roll back the military program, and that they refused to do because they knew it would be a deal-breaker.
Often governments, like individuals, do the right thing for the wrong reasons. The Bush Administration says it’s okay for India to be a nuclear power because it’s a friend, and it’s okay for us to have as many nuclear weapons as we need to keep ahead of Russia and China because we’re good guys.

That’s not why I support the agreement. It’s not okay for us to keep building up our nuclear arsenal and it’s regrettable that India and Pakistan became nuclear powers. As I’ve shown, we missed a chance to stop India from going nuclear by ignoring Rajiv Gandhi’s offer in 1988. But now that India is a nuclear power, we’ve got to live with that and keep that issue from continuing to estrange us. The nuclear cooperation agreement is a step in the right direction toward formal recognition of India as a nuclear state and that’s the main reason I support it. It will get the nuclear issue out of the way as a political and psychological barrier dividing us.

One of the arguments used by the administration in selling the agreement is that India will become part of an Asian strategic triangle with Japan to help us contain China. It’s true that a strong India will serve as an offset to China in the Asian balance of power but we should pursue good relations with both China and India. And in the case of India, we have shared democratic values, compatible economic systems and linguistic compatibility that make it easier to have close relations. A strong India is desirable for the United States in its own right and removing nuclear tensions will open up many new avenues of U.S. cooperation in strengthening India.

The real reason why the nuclear cooperation agreement is critical is that India won’t be strong and stable politically or economically unless it can meet the energy needs of a burgeoning population. That requires a major increase in nuclear power for electricity as part of India’s nuclear energy mix. More than 600 million people in India live below the poverty line. They can’t emerge from poverty without a rapid expansion of rural electrification. This is one of the world’s great humanitarian issues and it’s also the key to India’s future political stability. Economic inequality is growing in India as the cities gentrify while the villages in many areas remain stagnant. This has led directly to the growth of a Maoist insurgency.

The financial times had a powerful piece on April 26 reporting that there are as many as 20,000 organized Maoist fighters in local insurgent units. They are in 13 out of the 28 states and in roughly one out of four of the administrative districts in India. In some of these there are parallel Maoist local administrations. India has made remarkable economic progress, but there’s trouble ahead unless it is able to electrify the countryside. The nuclear agreement, in short, is about energy, poverty and stability. It has nothing to do with the size of India’s nuclear weapons arsenal, as the critics allege.

The administration insisted on tough terms for civilian nuclear cooperation that will guard against the military use of any of the reactors that we assist. I was surprised when India agreed, at the last minute, to put all of its existing and projected civilian reactors under in-perpetuity safeguards. That’s something China doesn’t have to do under its nuclear agreement with the United States. China can buy a reactor from the United States for civilian use and shift it to military use whenever it chooses.

The critics say that the agreement will free up domestic uranium for the weapons program by enabling the import of foreign uranium for civilian reactors. But the domestic uranium would have been available for the weapons program anyway. They say that the breeder reactors won’t be under safeguards and that will add to the arsenal. But the breeders would have been available for military use anyway. That’s why the Washington Post said quote “the prospect of a potentially large plutonium program outside the scope of multilateral inspections is not a setback relative to the status quo” unquote.

The Indian nuclear weapons program has never been inhibited by a lack of uranium fuel and it won’t be if the deal with the U.S. falls through. The Indian department of atomic energy says India has 78,000 tons of uranium ore and the United States agrees that it has at least 50,000 tons. They have the type of reactors needed to convert the ore to fuel, and they are improving the efficiency of their uranium mines, which means there won’t be a shortage of ore for the reactors. It’s true, of course, that they don’t have enough ore, or enough of a conversion capability, to sustain an open-ended civilian nuclear electricity program over a period of decades. That is precisely why they want U.S. cooperation.

What the critics are really saying is that without the agreement, India would have to choose between allocating its uranium for military purposes or for civilian purposes and that we have spared them the choice. But it’s clear that if India did have to make the choice between civilian and military priorities, it would opt for security. In any case, as it happens, India is not seeking a large nuclear deterrent force. Secretary of State Rice told congress that they have a “very restrained” nuclear program. Most estimates say it’s between 60 and 100 warheads.

All of this is well understood by Pakistan and China. So if there is a nuclear arms race at some point between India and Pakistan, it will result from other factors, not from the U.S. nuclear agreement with India.
Apart from a nuclear arms race, some critics say that the agreement will provoke China to sell Pakistan more civilian plutonium reactors that could be converted to military use.

It’s true that Pakistan has asked China to sell it two more civilian reactors in addition to the chasma reactor, which is already producing electricity, the kanupp reactor now under construction and the projected khushab reactor. But China told Musharraf on his visit to Beijing on February 23 that this would require an exception from the nuclear suppliers group, which China joined two years ago, and that would be hard for the NSG to justify.

Now turning to Iran. Why is Iran attempting to develop the nuclear weapons option? First and foremost because it feels threatened. It is encircled by U.S. bases in the gulf and central Asia and faces a U.S. regime change policy that includes the threat of preemptive military action. Israel has the dimona reactor and a recessed nuclear deterrent.

Of course, there are other factors. Most important, the idea of having nuclear weapons is politically popular. It’s appealing to Persians to have the nuclear option if their Arab neighbors don’t. It’s a symbol of sovereignty if you’re being told by the world’s leading power that you dare not do it. Iran has an Islamic radical as president at the moment who is being strengthened by the threat of sanctions, but it was an attractive issue even in the days of the shah, and that’s why he wanted the U.S. to help him start the Iranian nuclear program. In any case, my point is that whether Iran will develop the nuclear option has nothing to do with the U.S.-India cooperation agreement. India and Iran need each other economically and that won’t be affected by the U.S.-India agreement.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that a strong, stable India is critical to U.S. national security against the background of China’s projected expansion of its naval reach in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. As a series of joint naval exercises have shown, the U.S. and Indian navies are positioned for growing cooperation from the Persian Gulf to the straits of Malacca. Apart from such direct military cooperation, the United States and India have a common strategic stake in combating Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and Central Asia.

For India, keeping pace with its energy needs is its number one national challenge, and U.S. help in meeting these needs is the litmus test of the sincerity of U.S. rhetoric about a strategic partnership. The alternative to such a partnership could be the emergence over time of a Gaullist India, a free-wheeling India that could play an unpredictable role in Asia, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf, with uncertain consequences for U.S. security in the decades ahead.

CIP in the Press