Talking Nukes With India
THE U.S. relationship with China is locked in familiar contradictions: Commercial ties are deepening while political and military tensions remain. Meanwhile, relations with Asia's other billion-person nation, India, are improving in dramatic ways, but this realignment carries risks, particularly on nuclear policy. As President Bush prepares to visit India on Wednesday, the question is whether he can cement the improvement in U.S.-India ties while avoiding negative spillover effects.
Last July the two countries outlined a new nuclear policy. The United States said it would help India to build civilian nuclear reactors and import advanced weapons, setting aside the principle that countries refusing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should be denied such assistance. In return, India said it would renounce further nuclear tests, open its civilian nuclear reactors to international inspections and avoid cooperation with nuclear proliferators. In practice, India had already chosen to stop nuclear testing and to safeguard its nuclear material, but changing that voluntary good behavior into a more formal obligation would be a plus. So would the opportunity to neutralize the nuclear issue as an obstacle to U.S.-Indian rapprochement.
From the start, there were doubts about this policy. It wasn't clear, for example, that India was ready to become a useful ally; the country's anti-American left wing, which is represented in the current coalition government, continues to fight a rear-guard action against the largely pro-American commercial class that has emerged thanks to rapid economic growth since the early 1990s. But since the outline agreement was announced, India has twice confounded the doubters by supporting U.S. efforts to refer Iran's nuclear lawbreaking to the United Nations Security Council -- this despite India's thirst for Iranian oil and natural gas. It does not follow that India will become a dependable friend in all matters. But it may gradually reach the point where it is willing to act as a counterweight to China. And given India's large and tolerant Muslim population, it could be an ally against Islamic radicalism.
One other doubt has not been assuaged, however. India's offer to open its civilian reactors to international inspections is being undermined by signs that key reactors will be defined as military and thus be exempted. This would put India in a position to expand its nuclear arsenal rapidly, which might in turn cause neighboring Pakistan to build extra nukes to retain a viable deterrent. This prospect is alarming because Pakistan's dictatorship sits atop a cauldron of militant Islamic ferment and because Pakistan's nuclear scientists have a record of retailing know-how to rogue nations. Moreover, if the United States accepts a deal in which India retains huge bomb-making latitude, it will be harder to protest when China and Russia decide to promote the nuclear ambitions of their respective allies.
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a limited asset: It has not stopped a string of countries from going nuclear, and it's not worth forgoing major prizes such as an Indian alliance in order to preserve it. But a good nuclear deal with India could reduce the likelihood that Pakistan and others will scramble to build extra bombs. The Bush administration needs to tell its friends in India that the details of the deal matter -- to America's security and India's.