August 10, 2007

The nuclear deal: A positive fallout

This article originally appeared on Rediff on August 10, 2007.

Last week, an Indian journalist asked me who had the most to gain from the US-India nuclear agreement. The answer, I had thought, was obvious -- India, specifically India's people and India's businesses. The fact that this is not self-evident to many Indians speaks volumes about the trust deficit remaining between the United States and India, as well as India's lingering insecurity concerning its role on the world stage.

From an Indian perspective, what exactly does the nuclear deal accomplish? The direct benefits to India are three-fold: Increased energy diversity, greater access to technology and the potential for newer and deeper strategic partnerships.

As anyone who has experienced India's infamous 18-hour power cuts can tell you, its people and its burgeoning businesses are badly in need of stable, assured energy sources. This will require a diversification of India's energy options, including more efficient fossil fuel use, the harnessing or import of greater amounts of hydroelectric power, and the development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, in addition to greater investments in nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy currently accounts for a pitiful 3 per cent of India's overall energy, despite a sizeable nuclear infrastructure. The deal could greatly increase that figure in the coming decades.

Technologically, India has been denied access to vital scientific know-how since its nuclear weapons test in 1974. The technological denial has applied not only to expertise related to civilian nuclear energy, but also to various 'dual-use' technologies, such as propulsion and electronic systems, which could theoretically be used for military purposes. It has applied even to a range of seemingly innocuous agriculture- and health-related technologies. The nuclear deal explicitly and implicitly eliminates these technological barriers.

Lastly, the deal gives India an elevated standing in the global nuclear and political order, not quite on par with the five Nuclear Weapon States designated by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but nevertheless, a far greater standing than it has ever enjoyed before. The removal of technological barriers and the development of at least one crucial sector of the economy could in turn lead to greater and deeper economic and strategic ties not just with the United States, but also with Russia, Europe, China and Japan.

These three primary benefits for India from the nuclear agreement could, in turn, have a ripple effect. The US-India relationship is expected to improve along many dimensions in multiple sectors in the coming years, leading to increased trade in goods, greater investment in a diverse range of industries, and further social and cultural exchange between the two countries.

To some extent, such improvements are taking place already, regardless of the nuclear agreement and the agreement's impact on these fields will consequently be difficult to gauge. However, two specific aspects of the US-India relationship, with similarly tenuous connections to the nuclear agreement, may yet prove indirect beneficiaries of the deal.

The first will be greater commercial and technological opportunities in the defence sector. The US military industrial complex is already looking at India as a money-spinning market for its weapons systems. Of course, India, as the world's largest purchaser of military equipment, has no obligation -- legal or otherwise -- to buy American defence equipment. In fact, India will most likely continue to buy cheaper Russian and Israeli products whenever available, as they may be enough to ensure technological parity, if not slight superiority, vis-a-vis its two major competitors, China and Pakistan.

However, the option of buying American defence equipment is now on the table, and in some cases at least, the Indian government would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity. This does not mean that India should necessarily grant the multi-billion dollar contract for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft to an American company. But India's war-fighting machinery could benefit enormously from such acquisitions as superior night vision, better communications technology and more sophisticated electronic warfare systems.

The Indian military, which has pitiful little say in the choice of equipment purchased, is keen to acquire high-quality American products, many of which are denied to the Chinese and Pakistani militaries. The purchase of select American equipment could therefore see India gain a sizeable military-technological advantage over its regional competitors.

A second indirect benefit to India could be in the education sector. Some 20,000-odd Indian students, academics and researchers have been flocking to the United States each year for the past decade, and US universities are likely to remain the world's pre-eminent institutions of research and learning. However, Indian scientists have so far been prevented access to, or discouraged from cooperating in, sensitive nuclear-related and other high-technology fields.

The nuclear agreement can potentially eliminate this knowledge embargo, allowing interested and competent Indians to study and conduct further research in top US universities. Some will almost assuredly settle in the United States and contribute to that country's scientific establishment as part of the inevitable brain drain. Others, as recent migration trends have begun to show, will likely return to India with top-notch academic credentials and experiences and would prove valuable additions to their native country's scientific establishment. As the Chinese are so fond of saying under such circumstances, a more robust scientific and academic relationship between the United States and India could prove to be 'a win-win situation.'

The biggest remaining impediment, both to the consummation of the agreement and India's ability to reap its fruits, is the trust factor. Understandably, Indians have historically had reasons to mistrust the United States. They remember the Tarapur episode following India's 1974 nuclear explosion, as well as the turnaround in US support for India between 1965 and 1971. More recently, they read about the United States considering reneging on F-16 parts to Hugo Chavez's hostile Venezuela. The nuclear deal, offered seemingly altruistically by the US to India, is in part an effort to assure Indians that the United States can indeed be trusted.

Enduring distrust of the United States is substantiated by lingering Indian insecurity and suspicion in its foreign policy, frequently bordering on paranoia. As C Raja Mohan recently noted in light of the 123 Agreement between the US and India, 'It is a long political tradition in India to look for secret clauses in bilateral agreements.' But India is no longer the weak, impoverished country it was in 1974, nor is it an oil-rich but petty state like Venezuela.

As a fast-growing economy and the fourth largest military power, India's ventures in foreign policy -- be they concerning Iran, Nepal, Pakistan or even Fiji -- should scarcely be fraught with such hesitance or trepidation. The boldness of the nuclear deal could provide a much-needed boost of confidence to a country which, at 60, is only now learning to tightrope across the world stage without the safety net of the United Nations or the Non-Aligned Movement.

It should be noted that US-India relations were not always laden with such mutual suspicion. Indians often conveniently forget that a warmer US-India relationship, which included cooperation and alignment on Tibet and China, existed until the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. The US and its institutions were also among the prime technological and scientific contributors to India's 'Green Revolution' and its subsequent agricultural self-sufficiency.

While some opinion contributors in the Indian press have descended to questioning the patriotism of the proponents of the nuclear deal, a glance at the wide-ranging benefits of the agreement for common Indians clearly demonstrates in whose best interests the deal was arranged. Many of these critics -- Cold War atavists -- appear sadly negligent towards the needs of India's people and overlook the plain facts about the US-India relationship.

Today, India sends more students to the United States than any other country, Indians regularly think more favourably of the United States than citizens of most other countries do, and the United States remains India's largest trade partner. Arguably, the nuclear agreement is an attempt by both governments to improve their relationship to a level comparable to the relationships between their people and between their business communities. Indian mistrust of the United States, once synonymous with its foreign policy, is clearly a sentiment belonging to the past.