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The Great India Debate

Prepared by: Esther Pan
March 7, 2006

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With President Bush newly returned from the pomp and ceremony of his visit to India, the debate is focusing on a historic nuclear deal he announced with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh March 2. The deal, explained in this CFR Background Q&A, will ensure U.S. assistance for India's civilian nuclear energy program. But critics say there are no measures to restrain India's nuclear weapons program. Strobe Talbott, the main negotiator with India and Pakistan during the Clinton administration, tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman the Clinton administration was unwilling to make such a deal with India for fear of the damage it would cause to international nonproliferation efforts.

The nuclear deal is part of a wide-ranging agreement that covers U.S.-Indian cooperation on issues from security to counterterrorism to trade. Many in India are celebrating both the agreement and the new relationship with the United States. Zafarul Islam-Khan writes in the Milli Gazette, an Indian Muslim newspaper, that with this deal, “the hurdles faced by Indian procuring nuclear technology and fuel have been removed for good.” But others are concerned that agreeing to the nuclear deal will make New Delhi a hostage of U.S. policy on other issues, including Iran’s nuclear activities (Power and Interest News Report)

Dr. Harsh V. Pant of King’s College, London, summarizes the debate over the nuclear deal in both India and the United States for the Power and Interest News Report. George Perkovich, a leading expert on India's nuclear program, tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman the deal is good for U.S.-Indian relations but that the details in the draft accord were "very under-cooked and not well-considered." Carnegie nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione slams the deal, saying it “endorses and assists India’s nuclear weapons program” and was not properly reviewed by the State Department or Energy Department before being announced by Bush and Singh.

The U.S. Congress was not consulted on the details of the agreement, which will complicate efforts for congressional approval this month. A number of key legislators have already criticized the pact. Cirincione says Bush may have made a serious mistake by placing nuclear weapons at the heart of better U.S.-India relations. Six well-known nonproliferation experts agree, writing a letter to Congress detailing the deal’s shortcomings (PDF). “Building upon the already strong U.S.-Indian relationship is an important goal, and we remain convinced that it can be achieved without undermining U.S. leadership efforts to prevent the proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons,” the letter states.

But some experts defend the deal. Former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill called the deal "a major departure for American foreign policy" at a recent CFR meeting, and compared the transformation of U.S.-India relations to the opening of U.S. relations with China or the Soviet Union. Seema Gahlaut of the Center for International Trade and Security argues in this brief (PDF) that the deal will encourage India to continue its program of voluntary export controls and help strengthen global nonproliferation efforts. Gahlaut and her colleague Anupam Srivastav say India has instituted a strong system of nuclear export controls, comparable to that demanded by international treaties (PDF). And Teresita Schaffer of CSIS says much depends on the implementation of the deal, which will be difficult for both sides (PDF).

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