On July 18, 2005, US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a landmark agreement on civil nuclear cooperation that, if implemented as intended, would mark the end of what Jaswant Singh once famously called "nuclear apartheid" against India. The recent hearing on Capitol Hill, though contentious on Iran, was remarkable for the tacit acknowledgement of the value of enhanced nuclear cooperation in the transforming US-India relationship. What is astonishing, therefore, is the intense criticism emerging from India, particularly from BJP leaders, who had made similar proposals when they were in power. Irrespective of the details, the NDA government's overtures to the US were all premised on the notion that India's strategic programme could be separated from its civilian nuclear enterprises and various sub-sets of the latter put under safeguards in exchange for access to global nuclear commerce. Sadly, the NDA government put too little on the table and asked for too much in return. The UPA Government, in contrast, put much on the table, only to gain infinitely more.
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There is no doubt that this agreement is wholly beneficial to India-and to the US. Yet, three broad criticisms constantly recur in the Indian debate, which must be addressed to set the record straight. The first indictment holds that the agreement between Bush and Manmohan is worthless because it is asymmetrical: it records only US promises in exchange for what are binding Indian commitments. Unlike in India, where the executive has the prerogative to sign any global agreement without further reference to the legislature, the US President enjoys limited authority. Thanks to the separation of powers defined in the Constitution, the President can only promise to beseech the Congress to amend the relevant laws, not guarantee that it will in fact do so.
The second criticism is more recondite and centres on the assertion that the separation of India's civilian and military facilities would impact its ability to produce the requisite weapons-grade fissile materials and tritium. The Indian Government says the country will have sufficient capacity to produce all the weapons-grade materials required for its nuclear weapons through the facilities that will be designated as part of the military programme. The same conclusion holds a fortiori for tritium production: this isotope, at any rate, is required only in gram quantities per weapon, and its production in India historically has suffered more due to lack of irradiation spaces in research reactors.
The third criticism is that separation of the Indian nuclear establishment into distinct civilian and military estates will be difficult, costly, and untenable. This argument has significant merit. Quarantining India's modest military endeavour from what is still overwhelmingly a civilian nuclear programme will be difficult but not impossible. The chief obstacle here is not so much India's inability to sequester physical facilities but rather dividing organisations and personnel that hitherto worked seamlessly in both civilian and strategic pursuits. Because of these difficulties, the Joint Statement stresses that the identification and separation of civilian and military nuclear programmes in India will not occur "in a phased manner". The real issue, however, is whether India comes out ahead by making good on these commitments.
On this fundamental question, Indian critics of the Bush-Manmohan pact are entirely mistaken. They fail to appreciate how perilous their country's condition currently is with respect to nuclear fuel supplies. If India's reactors cannot secure new sources of natural uranium, their capacity to uninterruptedly produce nuclear power-let alone weapons-grade plutonium-would suffer greatly. Converting pressurised heavy water reactors to run mixed oxide fuels is not as simple as the pundits assert. How difficult separating military from civilian facilities would be must be judged against the alternative of India being permanently denied all access to nuclear fuel, if such separation is eschewed as the price of continued autarky. Mercifully for India, Manmohan made the right choice in Washington. As did President Bush.
The writer is senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC.