Nuclear Islanding

Ajey Lele

Most Indians find the Americans over-bearing and unjust. They find the Americans fiercely self-obsessed and highly individualistic. Most importantly they find the American policy towards India a consequence to or an offshoot of American policy to “something else” and not a policy that is based on an independent recognition of India as morale power. They think that America is far too in love with Pakistan and unjustly gives them a long rope. Naturally, at the backdrop of this it is becoming difficult for many to digest the latest Indo American deal on nuclear power.

In view of this it is important to understand what actually the deal is all about and what could be the US interest in engaging India atomically!

Essentially, the deal is based on common understanding of the significance of civilian nuclear energy for meeting growing global energy demands in a cleaner and more efficient manner. The deal promises full civil nuclear energy cooperation and tread with India. For India the deal is of great importance because it will satisfy its overgrowing demand of energy to some extent. The political and strategic fallouts of this deal are currently being discussed at various forums more fiercely.

As fallout of 1998 nuclear tests, Indian civilian nuclear programme meant for nuclear energy generation is almost in a dormant state for quite sometime. Internationally, there are legal problems in the supply of nuclear technology to India. Global nuclear suppliers being members of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) are not in a position to supply reactor technology to India unless it is made under full-scope safeguards. It was suggested that India could easily avoid this difficulty by accepting the concept of ‘islanding’ its nuclear programme.

As per this concept civilian and military component of Indian atomic programme needs to be bifurcated and civilian programme needs to be placed under full-scope safeguards. By doing this India could avoid the problem of NSG guidelines. This is what exactly Indian Prime Minister has accepted during his recent US visit.

Now, India is expected to identify and separate its civilian and military facilities and programmes in a phased manner. It would file a declaration regarding its civilian facilities with the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) and would voluntarily place its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. It would sign an Additional Protocol with the civilian nuclear facilities; continue its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; work with the US for the conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut off Treaty (FMCT) and would adhere to Missile technology Control Regime (MTCR).

The opponents of this agreement are of the opinion that India has given too much to get the nuclear energy and islanding would seriously hamper India’s security preparedness. But, the Prime Minister has reassured that the nuclear agreement reached with the US would not lead to any “diminution” of India’s strategic nuclear capabilities. Nevertheless, few scientists are of the opinion that islanding is not a viable solution and definitely not cost effective. In fact ‘islanding’ as a concept particularly in respect of India has got both merits and demerits and hence can be argued both favorably and un-favorably.

What is more important at this juncture is to understand and appreciate the reason behind the US decision of allowing India into the global nuclear calculus and almost giving it a de facto Nuclear Weapons State (NWS) status. It should be valued that taking such a decision in spit of knowing fully well that India is not likely to sign NPT and not likely to follow the US non-proliferation bandwagon, would not have been a pleasant task for Bush. But, why then Bush has gone ahead with this decision when he will have to overwork to get Congress and international nuclear supply cartels to agree to his new India policy?

By entering into such a deal is Bush trying to ease policies governing nuclear issues or more importantly is covertly trying to upset the regional balance of power in the region? Bush probably understands well the limited relevance of Pakistan vis-à-vis the US long-term strategies for the region so naturally he would like to engage a power that has the capability to counterbalance China. Fortunately or unfortunately China always gets factored in any security discourse over the region. But one cannot circumvent it because of the geopolitical realities of the region.

Also, India is expected India to purchase as much as five billion dollar worth of conventional military equipment from the Americans in days to come subject to Congress approval. The potential sales include anti-submarine patrol aircraft that could spot Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean and Aegis radar for Indian destroyers operating in the strategic Straits of Malacca, as useful for monitoring the Chinese military.

In view of this one question remains unanswered that by doing this deal has India succeeded in breaking out its present nuclear isolation or the US has covertly achieved its both economic and political aims? Only time can answer this question.

Author Note
Ajey Lele is a New Delhi based defense and security analyst.