On Oct. 1, while the attention of the Congress and the country was understandably focused on the presidential election and our economic crisis, Congress approved the controversial U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement.
This arrangement would end India’s nuclear isolation and allow that nation to engage in nuclear trade for the first time since it tested a nuclear weapon in 1974.
But after congressional approval, the Indian government refused to sign the agreement. It stated that no deal would be finalized until President Bush signed the deal in Washington first. Mr. Bush complied and signed the agreement first and the Indians followed.
India’s demand stemmed from concerns in India that Mr. Bush could have added a conditionality clause cutting off fuel supplies if India tests another nuclear bomb. Indian officials wanted Mr. Bush to sign the law before they did, in essence demanding a guarantee that the United States will not cut off supplies if India were to resume testing.
By agreeing to this most recent Indian demand, the United States made a bad deal worse.
The Bush administration and supporters of the deal, also known as the “123 Agreement,” have argued that the nuclear deal would benefit both countries by assisting India’s development of a much-needed, low-polluting energy resource, while opening up lucrative opportunities for U.S. nuclear companies.
According to Bush administration officials, the deal also will advance U.S.-India relations, put India’s nuclear program under greater international security, and help the United States develop an Asian counterweight against China.
What the Bush administration had failed to mention was the damaging effects the deal will have on the nonproliferation regime and the Asian region.
Unlike virtually every other nation in the world, India refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The most recent development once again signals that India has little intention of renouncing nuclear testing or of joining the international regime of responsible nuclear powers.
Rewarding countries that flout such rules could take the legs out from under the NPT and other accords, like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a compact that India also has refused to sign.
In addition to the damage it will do to nonproliferation treaties, the deal already has weakened the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which had to lower international verification and safeguard standards to pass the deal. Those safeguards were aimed at preventing the use of civilian nuclear programs for military purposes.
In Asia, the 123 Agreement has been met with consistent resistance and alarm, and rightfully so. Pakistan’s nuclear test in 1998, which followed India’s own resumption of nuclear testing, ratcheted up tension in an already unstable region.
With India’s entrance into nuclear trade - unfettered by obligations to enter into NPT, undergo IAEA inspections of its weapons programs or even promise it will not conduct another nuclear test - an increasingly unstable Pakistan could likely seek actions to close the nuclear gap, instigating an arms race in the region.
India’s reckless move of forcing Mr. Bush to sign the agreement first did little to assuage Pakistani concerns.
China, too, has signaled its unhappiness with the obvious attempt by the United States to balance its power in Asia.
In September, the Chinese released a statement through a leading state think tank attacking the deal: “Whether it is motivated by geopolitical considerations or commercial interests, the U.S.-India nuclear agreement has constituted a major blow to the international nonproliferation regime.” About two weeks after the deal was finalized, China agreed to help Pakistan build two nuclear plants.
The deal that passed Congress already had serious faults. It didn’t address which technologies the United States and other countries could safely transfer to India. It did little to offset the damage done to the nonproliferation regime. And serious concerns remain about whether the agreement met the standards of the Hyde Act, the U.S. law setting conditions designed to make it harder for India to resume nuclear testing.
Now, by agreeing to India’s latest demand, the United States is in effect looking the other way as India signals its intentions of remaining outside the mainstream of responsible nuclear powers.
The stakes are too high for the United States to blithely condone India’s reckless ascension into the nuclear mainstream. To ensure that India becomes a responsible nuclear power, the next administration must make it clear that conditionality or not, the U.S. will cut off nuclear supplies if India conducts another nuclear test.
In the meantime, the United States must remind India that, NPT signatory or not, it must assume the obligations that come with being a responsible nuclear power.
Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Winny Chen is a research associate at the center.