In the past week, major steps have been taken to enhance ties between India and the United States. The signing of a military logistics pact, which allows both sides to use each other’s assets and bases for repair and replenishment of supplies, was one of the key markers of this enhanced relationship. After more than a decade of debate on India’s approach to the US within the higher echelons of government, there is a clear consensus on the nature of engagement.
There have been visible signs that New Delhi is ready to fulfil Barack Obama's vision of India and America forming the defining partnership of the 21st century. In an era marked by the competition between the US and China for greater economic and strategic influence, Modi has clearly decided to look westwards. It is imperative to remember that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s expression of “natural allies” was avoided during the previous Congress-led UPA regime to maintain a pretence of non-alignment. Nonetheless, one did a witness a slight shift in India’s foreign policy priorities under the UPA. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2008 was probably the first indicator of this shift in strategy after the Vajpayee years. Besides the military logistics pact, this shift in foreign policy was equally reflected by various other agreements signed over the past few days, which included the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Speaking to a leading Indian daily, Kerry promised that Washington will work harder to fulfil India’s long-standing goal of membership into the Nuclear Suppliers Group-- a 48-nation club that frames and implements the rules for exporting nuclear equipment and fissile material with an aim to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the past year, the NDA government has made concerted attempts to secure it. These columns have earlier argued that entry into NSG is not a critical to our nuclear energy programme. India already has access to key nuclear technology, as a result of the waiver granted for the 2008 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Under the one-time waiver, India agreed that it would follow any rules that the NSG may make in the future. Entry into the famed club is also unlikely to matter much in terms of uranium supply.
India has already finalised agreements with the likes of Canada and Australia, among others, for the supply of uranium. “In fact, membership of the group will not immediately open up nuclear trade as India has already pledged not to transfer nuclear know-how to other countries,” according to T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. “Membership of the NSG will only mean greater pressure on us to sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and commit in advance to a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which would impose restrictions on existing stockpiles of fissile material.”
The only possible benefit that India may hope to reap is to participate in the NSG's rule-making process. However, despite its stated aim, the famed club has been ineffective in countering proliferation. China’s decision to supply two nuclear reactors to Pakistan faced meek opposition.
Unlike India, Pakistan did not even bother to seek an exemption under the NSG. International prestige and a desire to sit at the high-table seem to have driven the Modi government’s decision to seek NSG membership. Despite New Delhi’s best efforts, India’s bid failed last year after it was unable to push through its application at a plenary meeting in Seoul.
"We want to make it happen before the year end," Kerry said. But with China standing in the way, there are major doubts over whether Washington has the requisite capacity to secure India’s place on the high table. Back in 2008, it was a personal call former US President George W Bush that secured China’s consent to get India an NSG waiver. Since then, circumstances have dramatically changed. Reports indicate that there could be a special NSG session in November when India’s application would be taken up separately.
However, the month of November will also witness a period of great transition in Washington with the US elections. In the event of either a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton presidency, Washington’s priorities may change. Will either candidate muster the requisite diplomatic nous to take on the Chinese on India’s behalf? This is the million dollar question.