THE civil-nuclear agreement announced in 2005 by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was declared to be a boon for US-India relations and a grave threat to Pakistan’s national security.
Instead, the deal fizzled. Excessive optimism and pessimism are similarly unwarranted on the subject of ballistic-missile defences.
The civil-nuclear deal was widely heralded by advocates of the US as opening the Indian market to American-designed power plants, combat aircraft, household goods and insurance companies. The deal was also supposed to usher in a new era of strategic cooperation as Washington assisted New Delhi to become a counterweight to China.
Seven years after the civil-nuke deal was announced, Indian policies continue to make it very hard for US firms to invest and to sell their goods and services. US military cooperation and arms sales have increased, but New Delhi remains as vigilant as ever in protecting its strategic autonomy. Indian leaders will continue to resist choosing between Washington and Beijing — unless Beijing becomes belligerent. Over time, increased US market shares are likely to be realised, but for now the dividends are far below expectations.
The only true believers in the civil-nuclear deal, beside its American boosters, were in Pakistan. After this deal was struck, those who determine requirements for Pakistan’s credible minimum deterrence began to emphasise credibility and de-emphasise minimalism. Three related developments in Pakistan after the deal are especially noteworthy: the construction of a fourth plutonium reactor to increase Pakistan’s inventory of nuclear weapons, the imposition of a veto on negotiations for a fissile-material cut-off treaty and the explicit requirement for battlefield, or tactical, nuclear weapons.
The first two appear to have been a direct consequence of the deal; the third was a consequence of the Indian military’s adoption of a ‘proactive’ defence doctrine (known as Cold Start in Pakistan) and a growing disparity in Indian and Pakistani conventional capabilities as well as the deal and what it symbolically represented. The deal appeared to escort India to the high table of states possessing nuclear weapons while leaving Pakistan out in the cold.
After the deal, Pakistan’s nuclear requirements, which seemingly were set high to begin with, appear to have grown higher still. Bilateral relations with the United States deteriorated further. A larger, positive conception of US-Pakistan relations could not withstand the combined weight of the war in Afghanistan, US drone strikes and the deal. The first was unavoidable; the second was manageable, had drone strikes not been routinised and instead circumscribed to very high-value targets; the third was very ill-advised, absent compensatory actions by New Delhi to help with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the fissile-material cut-off negotiations. The Bush administration asked for little, and received less, from New Delhi.
The deal has been characterised as a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence because it permits a significant influx of foreign-origin nuclear power plants and fuel, because Indian authorities have stated their intention to build eight new domestic power plants that will not be safeguarded, and because India’s breeder-reactor program would produce a torrent of new fissile material.These worst-case nuclear-planning factors have not panned out. India has, indeed, purchased uranium abroad for its power plants, but its parliament has strongly resisted liability limits for foreign companies, which stands in the way of new power-plant construction by the US and other sellers. Domestic construction of power plants remains in the doldrums, and the ambitious plans of India’s Department of Atomic Energy are as suspect as those of its Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
The DRDO’s promises have become even more wildly optimistic under its current leadership, which now lobbies for an effective ballistic-missile defence system for Delhi and Mumbai. India appears to have flight-tested a total of six missile interceptors. The United States, in contrast, has flight-tested 67 interceptors since 2001, 53 of which have very generously been labelled as successes. Even so, US missile-defence programs face very serious challenges. Given the Indian defence-science community’s track record of over-promising and underperforming, the likelihood of its deploying effective missile-defence systems is remote — even with US assistance, and even if India’s military services make these defences a higher priority than obtaining new planes, ships and tanks.
The civil-nuclear deal and the DRDO’s record of poor performance suggest that it would be wise to avoid unduly optimistic and pessimistic assessments about Indian missile defences. US technology transfers will be as unwise in this case as with the nuclear deal. These transfers would not help India produce an effective missile-defence system, nor change New Delhi’s embrace of strategic autonomy. They would, however, add further impetus to a regional nuclear-arms competition. President Obama has not endorsed this initiative, but President Romney might.
The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.