September 24, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
After three years of painstaking negotiations, dozens of congressional hearings, and the near fall of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, the final stage of the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal is at hand. U.S. lawmakers will have to act quickly before they recess - to ensure this historic moment is not lost.
If enacted, this agreement will mark a new era for U.S.-India ties. It will enable our two democracies to create a freer, more stable and more secure world.
Skeptics who argue the deal will harm international nonproliferation efforts miss the broader picture. They ignore India's rising political and economic clout, its responsible record on nonproliferation, and the role it can play in international efforts to deal with the most serious proliferation threats of the 21st century.
Under this deal, India will place 14 nuclear reactors under permanent safeguards, negotiate an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and harmonize its export control lists with those of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It has already committed formally to a unilateral moratorium on further nuclear testing.
As a fellow democracy that shares many of our geopolitical concerns, India's inclusion into the nonproliferation regime makes strategic sense. India's growth in power and influence helps to ensure that one country does not dominate Asia. It will reinforce stability in a region that accounts for a quarter of U.S. trade and investment and almost half of the world's population.
Reversing years of mistrust between Washington and New Delhi on the nuclear issue has proved challenging. Take the recent release of a confidential letter from the Bush administration to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, California Democrat, reassuring the congressman it wouldn't sell sensitive nuclear technologies to India and would immediately terminate nuclear trade if New Delhi conducted a nuclear test.
This created a firestorm in India, with political opponents portraying it as proof the United States seeks to restrict India's strategic options. In the United States, however, the letter demonstrated to lawmakers that the administration understands the serious implications of a potential future Indian nuclear test, and is well-prepared to deal with it.
This matters because U.S. legislators have been leery about language found in the "123 Agreement" that appears at odds with the Hyde Act, passed two years ago to authorize civil nuclear trade with India, particularly where it concerns fuel supply and nuclear testing.
President Bush has tried to clarify the U.S. position in the legislative package now before Congress by declaring the fuel supply assurances contained in the "123 Agreement" were not legally binding on the United States.
From the U.S. perspective, Washington has the tools it needs to both uphold its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations and to bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream. If this historic nuclear deal is finalized, it will strengthen global nonproliferation by making New Delhi a stakeholder in a system seeking to adapt itself to modern proliferation threats.
Indian strategic affairs analyst K. Subramanyiamrecently noted China was admitted into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in the early 1990s (despite a spotty nonproliferation record) to integrate it into the nonproliferation regime as a stakeholder. "What the promoters of the NPT and the NSG are now attempting is to make the nonproliferation regime totally international by bringing India into it," he argues.
If the deal lapses and is left for the next administration, it could take several months before the new Congress considers it. By then, India will be heading into its own national elections, casting more uncertainty over the deal's fate. It's time to finalize this landmark initiative.
Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation
First appeared in the Washington Times