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Trump and Modi: Strangely Silent on the US-India Nuclear Deal

Larry Pressler shares his views on the US-India nuclear deal.

By Larry Pressler
Larry Pressler was the chairman of the US Senate’s Arms Control Subcommittee and advocated the now-famous Pressler Amendment. His book Neighbours In Arms provides a comprehensive account of how US foreign policy in the subcontinent was formed from 1974 till today and ends with recommendations of a new US-India alliance that could be a model for American allies in future.
Here’s a piece written by him on the US-India nuclear deal.
When I first visited India in 1965, I was enthralled by the people, the food, the heat and the colours. The plight of its poor moved me. As a graduate student in the Rhodes Scholar programme at Oxford University in England, I was looking for material to complete a doctorate in philosophy and made a brief visit to New Delhi. There, I spent three to four days during a term break in December.
On a low budget, I travelled by rail. The trains were crowded and the passengers were noisy and boisterous. It was such a contrast to the quiet and subdued cross-country train rides in the United States. I ate whatever my modest budget allowed, and remember enjoying my first taste of idli in southern India. Enveloped by the country’s spirit, I found the whole experience exhilarating.
But I also witnessed the long-term impact of foreign occupation and the devastating effects on its poverty-stricken people. I later saw the same negative impact of long-term foreign intervention in Vietnam. In India, there didn’t seem to be as strong a sense of national pride as I have witnessed in many other countries. At the time, I blamed it on colonialism. But, fifty years later, I also wonder if extreme poverty, corruption and the burden of the old caste system play a large role as well. Of course, the country’s lack of reliable electricity also keeps the population in a type of permanent Dark Ages—pun intended.
Consequently, I was highly encouraged when I learnt that, along with members of the US Congress, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had agreed in July 2005 to a nuclear deal to bring electricity to the mass population. The US–India nuclear agreement would allow the United States to supply India with nuclear fuel for civilian power generators. In exchange, India agreed to institute international safeguards on its nuclear reactors to prevent them from being used for military purposes. The negotiations, surprisingly, had been conducted in almost total secrecy. Highly controversial, the agreement ended the United States’ three-decade ban on nuclear trade of any kind with India without requiring the country to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme.
An idealist, especially in the field of international development, might look at this deal as a great victory for the people of India, as the mass population would finally get reliable and clean electricity. In a country where 300 million of its citizens have no electricity and millions more have unreliable electricity, the US–India nuclear agreement—if implemented—could significantly improve the quality of life for more than a billion people.
To development specialists, the US–India nuclear agreement could be a godsend. Nearly 30 per cent of India’s population lives below the poverty line and 75 per cent earns less than 5000 rupees per month. The residents of the state of Bihar are among the most impoverished people in the world, with more than 70 per cent of its population suffering in extreme poverty. An ample and reliable supply of electricity will increase productivity in states like Bihar. More light in homes and in workplaces results in greater activity. This increased productivity will lift up those living in the most abject poverty in India. That is what proponents of the nuclear agreement must state as its main objective. It is a worthy humanitarian goal. But, thus far, the architects of this deal and its advocates have failed to reinforce it.
My love for India and its people is heartfelt. That is why I am so passionate about the transformative effects nuclear power can have on its citizens. If properly implemented, the US–India nuclear agreement could bring electricity, an improvement in the standard of living, and some level of dignity for many poor Indians. The poor are the ones who need the nuclear agreement the most, but so far this deal has just been a shuffling of millions of dollars between governments, arms dealers, consulting firms and lobbyists. Almost a decade after the deal was approved, not one nuclear power plant has even started construction.
Why hasn’t this happened? Importantly absent from the deal was a requirement forcing India to join the NPT and adhere to all its requirements. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, enacted in 1970, extracted a bargain between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. Nuclear weapons states promised to use their nuclear capability only for peaceful purposes in exchange for a promise from non-nuclear weapons states not to pursue nuclear weapons in any form. The US–India nuclear agreement essentially gave India a waiver from the NPT, in an attempt to build a closer relationship with India and counter the rising threat of its powerful neighbour, China. This has antagonized many nuclear non-proliferation advocates, who see this move as a type of ‘nuclear double standard’. Many foreign policy experts claim that the special exemptions the US is giving India have done irreparable damage to global non-proliferation efforts. I tend to agree that we have executed an ‘about face’ on non-proliferation, but I believe it is necessary to get nuclear power for the Indian people.
It took nearly three years for both countries to approve the final agreement, which was signed by the then Indian external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and his counterpart, the then secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, on 10 October 2008. Since it is not a treaty and merely an exchange of statements, we must accept the fact that it is not enforceable. Both sides are depending on the goodwill of the other for implementation. The publicly stated purpose of the agreement is to build nuclear plants in India to supply electricity to the country. In actuality, the United States’ primary goal with this deal was, selfishly, an economic one. The US–India nuclear agreement was primarily an arms trade deal. While it certainly was intended to allow nuclear suppliers entry into India, it also opened up vast new trade opportunities between the United States and India for many other industries. So far, the defence industry is the only industry that has enjoyed significant gains from the nuclear deal. This was not a quid pro quo, but the deal did open the doors wide for significantly more arms deals, notably C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft, and joint military exercises with India. This deal is simply a pathway to justify an escalation in arms sales between the two countries. Indeed, Stephen Cohen, a Senior Fellow from the Brookings Institute and an India expert, said that India will be ‘one of the largest markets for defense equipment in the coming two decades’.
President Obama continued the trend started by President Bush and further opened up arms trade between our two countries. In 2009, the Boeing Company won a contract for a $2-billion order for P-3 Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Lockheed Martin secured a $1-billion contract for more C-130 transport aircraft. In 2010, President Obama pledged $5 billion of military equipment to India, making the US one of India’s top three military suppliers. Further efforts were made to loosen antiquated restrictions on technology transfer and to relieve onerous oversight controls. In 2013, the then secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, announced that India would be admitted into the coveted ‘Group of Eight’, the US allies that share the most sensitive technology details—without any export controls.
In 2014, analysts from the military trade publication Jane’s Defense said that India had become the largest foreign buyer of US weapons (only to be outbought by the Saudis in 2015). In 2015, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi announced new partnerships between our countries to jointly develop military jet engine technology and aircraft carrier design. President Obama said publicly that forging deeper ties between our two nations was a primary foreign policy objective for his administration. What he did not say is that these deep ties are mostly military ones. My nation’s new president, Donald Trump, seems poised to build on and reinforce this military relationship and take an even stronger stance against India’s rival, the rogue nation of Pakistan. Indeed, when Prime Minister Modi visited Washington in June of this year, the Trump Administration announced the approval of a $2 billion sale of unarmed drones to India, which raised the hairs on the necks of the Pakistani military and ISI. He also has appointed Lisa Curtis to be the Senior Director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council. She is a veteran foreign policy expert who has recommended a much more punitive approach to Pakistan. And President Trump has made no apologies for his hard line against Muslim terrorists. Sadly, however, during Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Washington, there was no mention of the construction of any nuclear power plants. Their conversation (at least publicly) was strangely silent on this topic.
The US–India nuclear agreement was a good first step towards making India a key global ally. However, the deal has not even begun to achieve its full potential. I fear it never will.
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