Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hillary's message to India: welcome to the world stage

The following was first published in The National on July 21, 2009.

A cynic might say that Hillary Clinton’s visit to India this week is about money, and in part it is. India is a potential market worth billions of dollars in trade, especially in nuclear technology and arms sales: the secretary of state’s whirlwind tour paves the way for American companies to bid for their share.

And with the Russians and the French already having signed agreements to build nuclear power plants in India, the White House desperately needed one of its own or faced a backlash in Congress.

But Mrs Clinton’s trip was about much more than that. It is the latest stage in efforts begun under the Bush administration to ensure that India plays a more responsible role in the international community.

The civilian nuclear co-operation deal signed by India and the US at the end of last year was aimed at bringing India into the nuclear fold without requiring it to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). It forced the separation of the civilian and military aspects of India’s programme, formalised the previously voluntary ban on nuclear weapons tests, provided assurances that nuclear fuel imports would not be used in weapons construction and allowed for UN inspections of civilian nuclear facilities.

These are all good things. But if the US had lost out on lucrative construction contracts and the jobs that come with them, then the nuclear energy deal would have been a liability rather than a benefit for the Obama administration, especially in the current economic downturn.

The potential benefit for US companies is considerable: India plans to increase the amount of energy it generates from nuclear power from 4,020MW to 52,000MW by 2020. The US will build at least two of the new reactors required.

In addition, the two countries have signed an end-use monitoring agreement designed to ensure that no country can misuse, transfer or sell US armaments or technology. This will help the American aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who in the absence of such an agreement have been prevented from selling advanced fighter aircraft to India.

Critics of this Indo-American rapprochement argue that India should not be rewarded for its refusal to sign the NPT; that the nuclear co-operation deal provides insufficient safeguards to prevent growth in India’s nuclear weapons stockpile because it can still use domestic sources of uranium to make weapons; that it sets a dangerous precedent for other non-signatories such as Israel and Pakistan; and that because inspectors have no access to India’s military nuclear facilities there is too little assurance that it will not misuse American technology.

With India’s rights to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods yet to be negotiated, this last issue in particular remains thorny. But while some of the criticisms are valid, the nuclear co-operation deal was probably the best the world could obtain from India, and its record of voluntary participation in non-proliferation efforts should allay most of the concerns.

Inside India, meanwhile, domestic critics have cautioned that the country is making dangerous concessions on its national sovereignty. Barriers to imports of nuclear fuel and technology imposed after the nuclear weapons test in 1974 forced India to develop its own expertise in enrichment and reactor construction. The critics argue that bringing in foreign expertise provides only a short-term benefit, while placing potential limitations on India’s capability to maintain a nuclear deterrent against Pakistan and, more important, China.

There are also concerns that renewed nuclear imports and arms sales could be used as leverage to mould India’s foreign policy from Washington, especially in the dispute over Kashmir.

But these domestic critics are both wrong and short-sighted. India has more than enough uranium reserves to maintain a nuclear weapons programme, but not to build an effective civilian energy one. International sanctions on uranium imports mean that the cost of running nuclear reactors is significantly higher than if India had signed the NPT, so nuclear energy would be neither affordable nor widespread without this co-operation agreement. Nor is the US seeking to force India’s hand on the issue of India-Pakistan relations. If anything, Mrs Clinton took great pains to state that these deals were entirely separate from US concerns on that issue.

India’s implicit accession into the nuclear weapons club is yet another sign that its global clout is increasing in pace with its impressive economic growth. Yet too often it has failed to take its rightful place in the international community. Indeed, on issues as diverse as climate change and regional security, India has been a hindrance to progress almost as often as it has been a help.

The country continues to oppose carbon emissions caps; it exports a significant portion of the 136,000 barrels of gasoline Iran needs to keep its economy moving, drastically reducing the effectiveness of international sanctions; the simmering conflict with Pakistan divides Islamabad’s attention between its eastern and western borders when it should be wholly devoted to tackling the growing insurgency problem along the Durand Line; and India’s refusal to sign the NPT hampers efforts to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons, despite its record of relatively responsible use of nuclear technology.

But efforts to punish India for its assertions of national sovereignty have been fruitless. Despite sanctions, India has harnessed the power of the atom, and no high-minded ideals will turn back the clock on its nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, it is an economic dynamo that has overcome many adversities to emerge as one of the most promising developing nations.

In the end, India will be persuaded to participate more responsibly in world affairs with the carrot of encouragement, not the stick of punishment.