This month marks the 15th anniversary of the start of the journey that led to the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement between India and the United States, popularly called the Indo-US nuclear deal. A landmark Joint Statement of 18 July 2005 was the origin of a transformation of bilateral relations. It envisioned a multifaceted relationship on issues as diverse as terrorism, science and technology, agriculture, infrastructure, health, commerce, energy and defence.
The nuclear dimension of the cooperation, however, monopolised the next three years as both sides worked hard and braved critics to enable amendment of national laws and international rules to facilitate India’s accommodation into the nuclear regime. This was not easy since the nuclear positions and policies of both countries had drifted apart substantively since 1974.
Three decades of estrangement had to be redressed. A revolutionary initiative was called for to not only accommodate India into the nuclear regime despite its strategic programme, but also effectuate an overall modernisation of the bilateral relationship. The Indo-US nuclear deal was crafted in this spirit.
Two regional developments around this time came in handy for pushing India’s case. The first was the manifestation of Pakistan’s irresponsible behaviour—first in Kargil in 1999, and then in its role in the nuclear proliferation network revealed in 2003. While Pakistan tried to frame the second episode as a private enterprise run by A.Q. Khan, enough archival evidence surfaced to prove State involvement. Both these events exposed Pakistan’s dangerous mis-adventurism and enabled a de-hyphenation of American policy towards the region. The nuclear cooperation agreement with India, only India, thus became possible.
The second development that went in India’s favour was the rise of China. Though Beijing was yet to bare its fangs in the early 2000s, the fact that it had them was beginning to become clear even then. The American worldview of the time envisaged the need to counterbalance China and nuclear India was perceived as being able to provide the right strategic weight for the purpose.
India’s democracy, liberalism and heterogeneity added greater heft to its appeal against the authoritarian, Communist and monochromatic China. Indo-US nuclear deal illustrated American preference for policies supportive of India’s rise. The US spokesperson in 2005 described this as “a global partnership with India which encourages India’s emergence as a positive force on the world scene”.
Basically of course, the Indo-US nuclear agreement was about enabling a rapid expansion of India’s nuclear energy programme. Given India’s increasing electricity requirements and the need to fulfil them using environmentally friendly technologies made nuclear energy a natural choice. But, to effectively exploit this, India needed more uranium and larger capacity reactors, which was only possible through participation in international nuclear commerce.
The deal enabled this by rehabilitating India into the narrowly straitjacketed Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This final step was preceded by many others that included the conclusion of a Separation Plan and signing of an Additional Protocol with the IAEA by India, and amendment of the US Nuclear Non-proliferation Act by the American administration.
With the conclusion of all steps by 2008, India had signed cooperation agreements with a dozen countries within the next three years. But, nearly a decade hence, India has limited tangible benefits to show by way of an enhanced nuclear capacity built through imported reactors.
This is because of many factors, such as, the blow dealt to public acceptance of nuclear power by the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, contentious land acquisition issues, circumstances that led to India’s nuclear liability legislation which inhibited private participation and complicated price calculations. Nonetheless, domestic reactor construction has accelerated with availability of imported fuel. India is also now a part of the global nuclear supply chain.
But then, the Indo-US nuclear agreement was about more than just the nuclear element. The deal pulled the relationship out of a fractious gridlock and laid the foundation for greater trust and friendship. This has withstood changes in administrations on both sides. Indo-US relations today traverse myriad dimensions: enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation since the 2008 Mumbai attack; a Strategic Dialogue institutionalised in 2010; fillip to military cooperation with the pivot to Asia in 2012 leading to expanded defence trade; increased energy cooperation, including on renewables technology since 2014; India’s designation as a major defence partner in 2016 opening new possibilities for defence acquisitions; conclusion of COMCASA in 2018 enabling Indian access to advanced communication technology for defence. Moreover, India’s membership of export control groups such as the MTCR, Wassennaar Agreement and Australia Group assure access to earlier denied high technologies. All these steps have added new pillars of cooperation to the foundation laid in 2005.
Interestingly, this broad-based cooperation particularly in areas of intelligence sharing, defence, energy and technology acquires a new relevance in the current military face-off with China. It should not be lost on Beijing that India had generally been mindful of China’s sensitivities on its closeness to Washington, including since the conclusion of the nuclear deal. But, Beijing’s recent military assertiveness leading to the loss of lives at the Line of Actual control is likely to change India’s calculus. Fortunately for India, its military, diplomatic and economic options today are many more than in 1962. The role of the Indo-US nuclear deal in opening these possibilities for India should not be overlooked.