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Indo-US Nuke Talks: Cosmetic Diplomacy!

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

NEW DELHI – Despite India and United States having devoted three days (June 12-14) to talks on Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in New Delhi, they were not marked by any significant announcement or statement. Agreed to in July 2005 in Washington, the agreement was inked formally this year in March during President Bush’s India visit.

Yet, for the deal to reach implementation, approval of the United States Congress, the Indian Parliament and that of Nuclear Suppliers Group is needed. If the deal comes through, the US will offer India nuclear fuel and technology. To receive the same, India will have to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place the former under international inspections.

While at one level, the deal is being viewed as “historic” spelling a major breakthrough for Indo-US ties, at another its credibility is being questioned. If in American quarters, the primary objection rests on India being a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in India questions have been raised on the country subjecting its nuclear facilities to international inspection.

India remains against the US desire for a cap on its future nuclear tests and on becoming a signatory to NPT. “We have made it clear that we already have a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests. There is no need to make it legally binding by inserting a clause into the proposed Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement,” an Indian official said. This stand of India also holds relevance in the context of suggestions emerging in Washington that the proposed India-US nuclear cooperation would be nullified if India conducts a nuclear test in the future. The US Congress also needs to approve an amendment in its nuclear legislation, which prohibits nuclear trade with any country that is not a signatory to NPT. These issues the focus of Indo-US negotiations last week.

In May, the Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran met his American counterpart in London and handed over an Indian counter-draft of the “123 Agreement” or the bilateral agreement on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The US had handed its initial draft in March during Saran’s Washington visit. The three-day talks aimed to work out operational modalities of a nuclear cooperation agreement based on these drafts. While Richard Stratfor, the Director of Department of Energy, led the US delegation, S. Jaishankar Joint Secretary (America- External Affairs Ministry) headed the Indian. US Ambassador to India David Mulford also participated.

Elaborating on what was achieved during the talks, an Indian official said: “The two negotiating teams … were able to narrow their differences on a number of draft provisions of the proposed agreement. The officials of the two sides now have a much better appreciation of their respective legal and political positions. Pending issues will now require internal consultations on both sides with a view to jointly formulating a draft, which meets with approval of both sides.” In a crux, with there being “pending” issues, the talks at most helped “narrowing” certain differences but not in removing them. Describing the talks as “positive and constructive,” a US embassy spokesman said: “This was the first round of technical talks and each side has to go back, look at the drafts and figure out the next steps.” There is also a view that such negotiations are deliberately being planned to delay the deal from actually being finalized.

Nevertheless, exuding confidence about the deal taking shape as earlier agreed upon last year in July and this year in March, between Bush and Singh, Mulford said (June 16): “There is no need for suspicion regarding the agreement. It remains the same… We are now negotiating detailed aspects of the bilateral agreement necessary to implement the deal and to seek the necessary change in law in the US Congress.” Mulford’s comment holds significance as Indian critics have repeatedly voiced apprehensions of the deal being amended to make its passage possible through the US Congress.

If Washington has been recently witness to several prominent senators voicing their support for the deal, opposition voiced to it from no less prominent authorities cannot be ignored. Describing the deal as a “formula for destroying American non-proliferation goals,” around 37 Nobel laureates have urged the US Congress not to approve the deal “in its current form.” In their opinion, as the deal “weakens the existing non-proliferation regime without providing an acceptable substitute,” the US Congress should withhold its approval.

Taking an absolutely different stand, Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) argued: “We have spent 32 years negotiating with India over terms they will not accept. Without this partnership, we could spend another 30 years negotiating while India’s program expands without scrutiny.” Yet, this also implies that for the deal to come into effect, the Congress must amend its law and NSG its rules, which means more negotiations and greater debate at these levels.

Till then, the deal’s significance remains confined to paper. And negotiations being indulged in to push the deal forward may perhaps be labeled as just exercises in cosmetic diplomacy!


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