Nuclear Suspense Begins Now!

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Suspense begins with announcement of results for the 15th Lok Sabha after counting of votes on May 16. While it will take a little while for the picture to be clearer on who would the key power holders in the new government, there also prevails diplomatic suspense over its approach towards United States. Will the new government yield to pressure from Washington on signing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or not? Signals coming from Washington suggest that New Delhi is likely to face pressure from United States on signing NPT, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and agree to a freeze on production of fissile material. Speaking here at an interaction session, last week (May 5), on “US-India Relations,” former US envoy and senior fellow and senior advisor to President Rand Corporation, Robert D. Blackwill referred to prospects of a shift in US approach towards India under President Barack Obama. His predecessor George W. Bush gave importance to “transformation of US-India relations” as a “key factor in balancing the rise of Chinese power,” which in Blackwill’s opinion was the primary factor responsible for negotiating the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. “Without this China factor at the fore in Washington, in my view the Bush Administration would not have negotiated the Civil Nuclear Agreement and the Congress would not have approved it,” Blackwill said.

“There are preliminary indications that the Obama Administration has a different policy orientation towards India,” Blackwill pointed out. “It will take very hard work and skillful diplomacy from both governments to keep the US-India relationship on its current plateau and to avoid a steady decline in our bilateral ties,” Blackwill said.

Describing the Indo-US nuclear reprocessing and the civil nuclear cooperation as a “tough negotiation,” Blackwill said: “I am skeptical that it would have been successfully concluded under current conditions by this American Administration and Congress.” “It seems likely that Washington and New Delhi will begin a reprocessing agreement this calendar year which would promote the sale of US nuclear reactors to India. Were that negotiation to break down, recriminations would surely fly from both capitals,” he said.

With Washington “now naturally focused on US-China economic relations,” Blackwill pointed out: “So, China today appears, at least to me, to be on a substantially higher plane in US diplomacy than India which seems to have been downgraded in Administration strategic calculations.”

Referring to US stand on Indian nuclear policy, Blackwill stated: “The Obama team endorses both the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a freeze on the production of fissile material. Neither of these appears to be acceptable to the Indian Government today.” “It is not clear at least to me how the Obama team basically regards India’s nuclear weapons – as a destabilizing factor in South Asia; as a fact of life to grudgingly tolerate; or as a natural development from a close democratic collaborator and rising great power,” Blackwill said.

As Blackwill outlined United States’ stand on India’s nuclear policy here, similar points were made by US assistant secretary of state Rose Gottemoeller in her opening remarks at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 NPT Review Conference being held at UN headquarters in New York. “Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea remains a fundamental objective of the United States,” she said. Later, while praising India’s willingness to pursue CTBT and also pursue Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) in cooperation with United States, Gottemoeller said: “So I would say that India is coming closer to the non-proliferation regime, and that too is an important goal of the US foreign policy.”

India has repeatedly asserted that it will not sign the CTBT or NPT, despite it having inked the civilian nuclear deal with United States. Earlier this year, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said: “We will not sign CTBT or NPT and we have made it absolutely clear to the US that we are bound by the bilateral agreement with it and India-specific safeguards with the IAEA.”

At present, in addition to political and diplomatic suspense, fate of India’s nuclear policy also appears to be at stake. Will the next Indian government continue the much-publicized Indo-US nuclear deal, even if it leads to it inking the NPT and CTBT? Undeniably, “nuclear” signals coming from Washington have placed Delhi in a more complicated situation than before regarding its stand on NPT. Though even Bush administration had pursued the nuclear deal, expecting India to move towards the NPT, the Obama team, as Blackwill indicated, seems keen on India actually inking the treaty it has always opposed. This hard reality will certainly take a little while to sink in to the new Indian government’s diplomatic approach towards US. It would also have to take stock of the diplomatic fact that India has been “downgraded,” with China being given greater importance in Washington’s policy. Thus, soon after suspense about post-poll scenario in India is over, concerned authorities are likely to begin talking about nuclear dilemma being faced by the new government: to yield to Washington’s pressures on non-proliferation, with or without the nuclear deal in place, or not!


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