Page 1 of 2 US-India deal clouds nuclear summit By Peter J Brown
For India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was on Sunday tapped by US
President Barack Obama for his first major one-on-one meeting at the sidelines
of this week's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, much has changed since
his visit to the US capital last November.
The two-day summit, which is focusing on making atomic sites and materials
safer from terrorists, comes after last week's release of the latest US Nuclear
Posture Review (NPR) and the signing in Prague of the US-Russia START nuclear
arms control treaty. In May, there is also the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) Review Conference.
There are sub-plots to the US-India engagement, including the
continuing dispute over Indian access to David Headley, the Mumbai terror
suspect being tried in the US, relations with Pakistan and the situation in
Afghanistan. Still, Singh's superb salesmanship is once again on display thanks
to the US announcement in late March of a nuclear reprocessing agreement with
The deal will allow India to acquire spent nuclear fuel from the US, and as a
result, places India in an elite group along with Japan and several European
"At a time when overall relations have been under something of a cloud, the
reprocessing agreement, and its timely completion, suggests that a bipartisan
commitment at the highest levels of the US government on the single most
consequential issue area in bilateral relations for New Delhi - high-technology
trade - remains intact," said Sourabh Gupta, senior research associate at
Samuels International Associates in Washington, DC.
This was billed as one of the expected outcomes of the broad "123 Agreement" -
the name commonly used for the 2008 civilian US-India nuclear deal officially
known as the US-India Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of
Nuclear Energy. But it has faced a barrage of criticism especially from
domestic opponents in the US.
Unlike the new START treaty between Russia and the US, and the recent release
of the NPR, the US-India deal has not captured everyone's attention as the
curtain rises on the summit. Along with the summit's focus on the threat of
nuclear terrorism, Iran and North Korea - though not officially on the agenda -
are likely to feature heavily in Obama's talks with leaders.
In discussions with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama is likely try to cement
China's commitment to pressuring Iran over its nuclear program through
sanctions, as well as cool recent Sino-US tensions. The summit of 47 nations in
Washington comes ahead of an alternative international nuclear disarmament
conference in Tehran on April 17-18.
China has kept silent on the US-India nuclear reprocessing deal. The visit to
China by India's Foreign Minister S M Krishna a fortnight ago may be one
reason. China also advocates the right of all nations to pursue civilian
nuclear programs and the peaceful uses of nuclear power in general. China
probably prefers to mask its displeasure, since China will sit down with India
again at the latest of the increasingly important BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India,
China) summits, to be held in Brasilia on April 16.
"From the day this agreement passed muster at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)
in September 2008 - despite their non-constructive role in the NSG at the time,
Beijing has known that this was a done deal,'' said Gupta, referring the
US-India nuclear reprocessing agreement. ''To their credit though, they have
thereafter chosen to pursue their interest in somewhat stabilizing the
political relationship with New Delhi, rather than publicly nurse their
grievances about an arrangement that became the capstone of the US-India
While Beijing would like the US and the international community to accord a
similar set of civilian nuclear arrangements to Pakistan, that is not going to
happen, Gupta said. ''And Beijing is not likely to facilitate such bilateral
cooperation either to the extent that it calls into question its treaty and
norm-based commitments to the international non-proliferation regime."
On the other hand, China has taken the opportunity to send a strong signal both
to India and the US via its critique of the NPR, which China's views as
deliberately distorting China's nuclear intentions at time when the US's
strategy involves surrounding China with nations that have rapidly evolving
nuclear capabilities of their own.
"It is publicly known that the US once had hundreds of nuclear warheads aimed
at China. Even today, it has numerous naval vessels deployed carrying nuclear
weapons that can be retrained on China swiftly," said an editorial in China's
Global Times newspaper in early April. "In Asia, China is surrounded by
countries that have signed nuclear pacts with the US. It is the US, not China,
that should provide more transparency regarding its nuclear intentions." 
The reference to "nuclear pacts" applies to both India and Japan equally.
"I wouldn't be happy if I were [President Jintao], but China is also to blame
for not blocking the original Nuclear Security Group waiver for India which was
approved by consensus," said Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the
California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "Still, I am
not sure how much it will affect the tone of the summit, which is more focused
officially on dealing with nuclear terrorism and, on the sidelines, on dealing
India walks away the clear winner here. The Obama-Singh meeting further
reinforces the perception that the US wants to highlight its strong
relationship with India no matter how strong this relationship might be at
present, especially in India's eyes.
"It is not the reprocessing capability right now that is the danger. India had
sufficient capability to reprocess material in its existing unsafeguarded
reactor facilities to build upon its stockpile," said Pomper. "It is what the
agreement says about the willingness of the US to stand up to India,
particularly when it comes the possibility of an Indian nuclear test such as
one that clearly shows ability to develop a two-stage thermonuclear weapon.
That is what I would worry about if I were China."
Pomper said the real problem with the deal is that it gives India a better deal
in terms of reprocessing rights from the US than both Japan, which is a
non-nuclear state, and Euratom, which is a mix of European nuclear and
"Not to mention those countries are closer allies to the US as well," said
Pomper. "Those deals laid out explicit criteria under which the US could
suspend the agreement. The most important of which that is in Euratom's [deal],
for example, but is missing from the India deal is if the other party tests a
nuclear device. This seems to open the door to further Indian nuclear tests.
Also missing is a provision that it could be suspended in the case of a
safeguards violation by Euratom and that was missing from this [agreement]."
Yes, there is a provision that if the agreement is suspended for more than six
months, the US will have to enter into consultations on compensating India for
its loss, too.
"For India, this is too good to be true, but US negotiators seem to have a
congenital predisposition to giving away the store when they negotiate with
India," said Pomper.
India is not changing any of its previously held positions with respect to
nuclear issues as a result of signing this agreement. It will not be signing
the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty anytime soon, for example. The same is true
for the NPT.
Gupta emphasizes that the assurances that India has given here are contained
"mainly within the understandings that were reached during negotiation of the
umbrella 123 Agreement.
"Though the 123 Agreement, as read, leaves a degree of ambiguity as to what are
the criteria for termination (so as to make ratification, then, of the deal
palatable in both legislatures), a private communication from the State
Department to then-chairman Lantos of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in
January 2008 - and presumably known to the Indian side - explicitly lays out
these criteria," said Gupta. "They are: detonation of a nuclear weapon;
material violation of the 123 Agreement; or violation or termination by New
Delhi of its IAEA-negotiated safeguard agreement. These are assurances
communicated by India."
Furthermore, as part of the arrangement and procedures of the March 2010
agreement, New Delhi has provided written bilateral undertakings on end-user
guarantees as well as non-diversion of nuclear materials.
"All overseas-supplied reactors, fuel, as well as facilities reprocessing such irradiated fuel are also to remain under IAEA safeguards. The [arrangement and procedures] also specifically list the number of facilities to be covered and the procedure for 'consultation visits' to such facilities by US officials," said Gupta.