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U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Accord: An 'Epochal' Agreement

Interviewee: Ashley J. Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 10, 2008

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Ashley J. Tellis, an expert on South Asia, who served as a consultant to the State Department in negotiating the just signed U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, says the pact was a "significant achievement" for President Bush. He foresees an improvement across the board in U.S.-India relations, although he warns that there has to be careful diplomacy in the future to ensure cooperation.

You were involved in planning and execution of this U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement from its earliest stages. It was finally signed into law by President Bush this week. How important is this agreement, do you think, for the Bush administration?

It is a very significant achievement. The president came into office hoping that he would be able to put in place a new relationship with India, an idea which has turned out to be elusive through the years. Administrations have tried, since the 1980s, beginning with President Reagan, to set the India relationship on a new footing. The most recent effort was led by President Clinton, just before he left office. That breakthrough eluded us for a variety of reasons, among the most important of which was of course the disagreement with India on its nuclear weapons. And Bush has, in a sense, managed to take this devil by the horns and exorcise it. Get rid of it entirely. And I think this is simply epochal. I mean, there's no other way to describe it.

Epochal?

This is epochal. This is one of those moments, when we look back a couple of years or decades from now, it will prove to be one of the turning points in forging the U.S.-India relationship for the new century.

That's interesting. It was signed almost without any Americans taking notice.

The bill was signed into law on Wednesday. The Senate actually voted on it last week.

Voted on it almost between votes on the rescue program. And as a result the American press virtually ignored it. But in India, this was a major, major story, wasn't it?

Absolutely, because it's a multilayered phenomenon in India. First, it was a symbol of the United States doing something that it did not have to do for India, but nonetheless did, in order to forge this new relationship. This went to the heart of the American commitment to assisting India in its growth toward the coming of great power. So there was a powerful symbolism that transcended the specifics of the agreement. That was the first item. Remember, this comes against a backdrop of an Indian complaint that goes back fifty years, which is that the United States has always seen India within the context of its relationship with Pakistan, that it has always given India short shrift because of the exigent necessities for Pakistan over the years. So, the civil nuclear agreement exorcises the demons that the Indians believed always put India within the context of Pakistan. This agreement has nothing to do with Pakistan. It was a pure bilateral U.S.-India initiative. And it was the best way the United States could convey its commitment to helping India's development, to helping India's growth and power. The symbolism here was extremely profound.

The second element is simply that this meets an important Indian need, which is the need for energy. India is in the takeoff stage of its economic development. It's looking at a point where it has enormous energy requirements. The one thing they want to look at more closely is civilian nuclear energy, for all the environmental benefits and because it lessens dependency on foreign oil. These are pretty much the same kinds of concerns that we have in the United States. But they couldn't get to this point because of this enormous set of rules that was constructed for the last thirty-five odd years that kept India out after 1974 [when India conducted its first nuclear test].

You mean the Nuclear Suppliers Group?

Yes, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for one. There've been a whole series of things that the United States put in place since 1974 in an effort to isolate India and to get the Indians to roll back their weapons program. The Bush initiative basically brings the curtain down on those U.S. efforts of the last thirty-five years. It transforms India from the target to now the partner. This is, from the Indian point of view, extremely profound. It helps India meet its energy targets, but it also changes the character of the bilateral relationship. The Indians recognize that the one thing that the Chinese have had since the 1970s is access to American and European dual-use technologies, because those were not barred to China as they were to India.

Can you give me an example of such a technology.

A very simple technology, for example, is instrumentation. Sophisticated instrumentation that you can use, for example, in mining, in oil exploration. These are technologies that, in some conceivable circumstances, could be used to advance a nuclear program. The Indians didn't want this for their nuclear program because they had enough technology for their weapons program indigenously. They, for example, are trying to do resources exploration in very difficult geographic terrain. They need access to this quality of instrumentation but it was simply denied to India on nonproliferation grounds. Now, this technology becomes available given the Bush initiative.

India used to be a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and always kept running up against U.S. foreign policy because it was seen as tilting toward the Soviet bloc. Does this accord open up new vistas in cooperation on foreign policy issues?

It does, but one needs to be careful about what that will mean in practice. It will certainly change the India worldview about how it sees the United States. Throughout the Cold War and at the height of the Non-Aligned Movement, India always had a very suspicious view of the United States because the United States was seen as a country that was attempting to restrain India's growth. The ties that the United States enjoyed first with Pakistan and then with China were seen as objective constraints on India's freedom of action. And there was enough there in the relationship that allowed the Indians to look at the relationship with the United States through very jaundiced lenses. This deal puts all that behind us, because if nothing else, it communicates to the Indians that the United States is a friend. But, what does this mean for actual cooperation? We've got to remember even if the Indians change their view of the United States there are challenges that India is going to face because of the disparities in Indian and American power.

Our interests often diverge. And these interests can be reconciled through diplomacy and through a great deal of energy and investment on both sides. But, that convergence may not be automatic, or it may not exist a priori. So there is work that will have to be done. The deal takes away some of the preconditions that prevented cooperation. But this will not automatically assure cooperation unless both sides can bring to the table good diplomacy, deep engagement, and continued cooperation.

India's very worried about terrorism right now, particularly Islamic terrorism. The United States has been fighting this now for some time. Is there any cooperation going on now in this field?

There is cooperation, but I must confess that we have not found the right level of cooperation. It is still in its infancy. And until a year ago, it was a very discordant cooperation because there were real differences about Pakistan. A year ago, that began to change because the U.S. expectation that Pakistan would deliver on terrorism slowly started dissipating. We began to become more realistic about what the Pakistanis could and could not do. And in the last year there has been a much better convergence on U.S. and Indian positions with respect to terrorism, especially the need to help Pakistan kick the cancer that consumes it from within.

I think we are on the cusp of a new relationship with respect to cooperation on terrorism. We can do much better than we have so far done in terms of intelligence cooperation. The Indians have very good local intelligence on what is happening in respect to terrorist movements in Pakistan. We need to be able to better share with the Indians our own intelligence. We started doing it, but we need to accelerate this. Second, we need to have at least a common view on what the challenges facing Pakistan are, and how we can both help Pakistan to defeat terrorism. This is not an issue to divide us anymore, because I think the United States has realistic expectations of Pakistan's limitations today. The third area is in respect to Afghanistan. India, the United States, and Pakistan have a real interest in Afghanistan coming out right. We have not been able to coordinate our strategies with respect to Afghanistan. The next administration has a great opportunity to have that conversation. I hope now that we have opened the door to a new relationship with India, the stage is set for a cooperative engagement with respect to Afghanistan.

What is India's relationship to Afghanistan?

The Indians have always wanted a close relationship with Afghanistan but they have never pushed for one because, other than the civilization ties, the relationship with Afghanistan has been driven more by what happens in Kabul than what happens in New Delhi. Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan has always been a very troubled one. And because it has been a troubled relationship, successive Afghan governments of every stripe, going back to the days of the monarchy in the 1950s, through the Communists in the 1980s, have looked to New Delhi for help in containing what they see as the Pakistani threat to Afghanistan.

There has been a good relationship, but it's been a relationship with many limitations because India does not share the land frontier with Afghanistan. Access to Afghanistan has historically been very difficult because the relationship with Pakistan has been troubled. Even to this day, the Indians are unable to assist the Afghans in ways that they would want simply because they don't have land transit rights to be able to move food, to move construction materials and things like that, which they need to support their humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.

The United States looks upon China with sort of mixed feelings. How does India come out on this?

It comes out of it in exactly the same way as we do. There is a fundamental disquiet about China, about its growing power, about its military modernization, and about the many things that the Chinese have done over the last fifty years to undermine Indian security. But the Indians are extremely cagey about articulating that disquiet. And so, what you've got is essentially a situation that is analogous to that which confronts the United States, a desire to maintain a good working relationship with China and to have the economic dimensions expand to the maximum degree possible. But the Indians are going to continue to keep their powder dry, and there will be a certain distance which will not be bridged because Chinese power exists on Indian doorsteps. There is a certain degree of discomfort with China and the strategic directions it has pursued. In India, that is not going to disappear anytime soon. [This is] one of the things that drives the Indian strategy of improving its relations with third parties. Here the United States is critical; its relations with Russia become very important; Indian relations with Japan and Southeast Asia become very important. All these relations are driven in part by the calculation that because the Sino-Indian relationship will never be one of complete transparency and amity, the Indians feel compelled to build up these other relationships as insurance. The key thing though is it's all going to be very polite, very Asian. Everyone is going to do this with a lot of smiles on their faces, but they're not going to let down their guard.

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