On the ‘sovereign right to test’

The India-US nuclear deal makes the costs of testing less asymmetric

Jerry Rao’s op-ed in the Indian Express does much to blow the misunderstanding over India’s sovereign right to test nuclear weapons. It also does much to clarify our understanding of the Indian Left’s championing of everyone’s nuclear weapons programme, save India’s own. [see Rohit’s post]

The situation is quite clear on our so-called sovereign right to test. We can test nuclear weapons whenever we wish because we are, most emphatically, not signing the NPT. But just as in 1974 and in 1998 there was a cost to testing, so will there be a cost going forward. The enormous achievement of the Indian negotiating team is that this time around the costs would not be asymmetric. The last two times we were lonely losers in the world of international atomic trade. President Clinton went public in 1998 that he would “come down like a tonne of bricks” on India because we had the temerity to test. President Bush has conceded that while the US can react to a fresh Indian test, it will not be costless to them. The US too will pay a price and a stiff one at that. Sovereign behaviour comes with a price tag and, if anything, Dr Singh has lowered the price tag substantially.

The real opposition from the Left, ironically, is to any progress by India in the nuclear space. The Left supports China’s nuclear programme (despite our unresolved border dispute with China and despite their assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear development). The Left parties are vociferous supporters of Iran’s nuclear ambitions (with their eye on Indian Muslim support, which rightly or wrongly they believe is tied to our loud approbation of Iranian violations of a treaty that they voluntarily signed). It is only with constructive progress of India’s atomic industry (which is virtually impossible without removing the “tonne of bricks” currently resting on our heads) that the Left Front has a problem. It is fascinating to note that the Indian Left has enthusiastic supporters in the American Left who too would like to sabotage 123 and ensure that India signs the NPT as is, or else face something heavier on our heads. [IE]

So why is it surprising the The Hindu changes tack and now advocates ‘putting the nuclear deal on hold’?

As Jerry points out, the debate over this issue is no longer over its pros and cons with respect to the national interest. The political debate over this deal is now solely devoted to saving or bringing down this government, and over possible electoral alliances for the next general elections.

13 thoughts on “On the ‘sovereign right to test’”

  1. To me the word “trade” in the phrase “international atomic trade” would (should, rather) imply that both parties to the agreement “buy as well as sell” in largely equal measure. I do not see that happening in the present “deal”. It is US as seller and us as buyers, that too having to put up with demeaning conditions. If the Agreement stipulated that the US / NSG would buy equal dollars worth of hi-tech civilian nuclear power plant products / equipment / components manufactured in India (obviously I EXCLUDE anything to do with defence-strategic areas in the above) then it could become acceptable – India as a supplier might have a measure of hold over the US should it play tricks as it did with the 123 Agreement of Tarapur 1 & 2. I remember having read somewhere that in US’s underworld mafia language, this is referred to as having an “equalizer”, meaning the opponent has a gun too.

  2. “…which rightly or wrongly they believe is tied to our loud approbation of Iranian violations of a treaty that they voluntarily signed”

    Just for clarification, what actions of Iran are in violation of the treaty they voluntarily signed? (I assume this means the NPT?) – I might be misinterpreting the statement here.

  3. Nitin, it appears that Australian Labour leader Kevin Rudd has said he will scrap the supply deal with India if he is to come to power. Doesn’t necessarily mean of course that Uncle Sam can’t change his mind, but could the supply deal be stuck in more negotiations? Rudd will have popular support, that is for sure (again, may not count for much). I get the feeling that The Acorn is also less than sanguine about the whole thing.

  4. Nanda Kishore,

    Was that before or after he confessed to going to a strip bar while in New York on UN business? 🙂

    Seriously, Rudd & Co are opposing this deal as part of a strategy to exploit public misgivings over PM Howard’s close engagement of the United States. Labor is also coming out to be pro-China, and given that the China trade has buoyed the Australian economy over the past decade, this may play well with the electorate. But I still think it’s an election for the Conservatives to lose.

    I’m not too concerned about Australia’s position on the deal. They’ll come around eventually…when even Rudd & Co realise that pinning their economy on just one country has its costs.

  5. Okay, we need a definitive answer for (a)what the current state of affairs is, (b)what will happen if India conducts a test now, (c)what the state of affairs will be after signing and operationalizing the deal and (d)what would happen should India test after (c) happens. If (c) is better than (a) and if (d) is not worse than (b), we should go for the deal. Unfortunately I haven’t read any literature that details all these scenarios in clear terms.

  6. Sriram,

    Can you clarify what you mean by “state of affairs”? It’s easier to discuss if we frame the issues exactly.

  7. Hindrances to nuclear power generation and room (which we might have) in terms of developing nukes.

  8. Let this government fall and let’s have elections. The new Parliament’s composition won’t be much different from this one. Except the Left would have much less of a say the next time around.

    Manmohan must call the red rogues’ bluff. Doing nothing will delay the inevitable by a few months. Imagine a situation where the government survives another 4-5 months, the nuclear deal goes nowhere and then the government falls. By then Bush would have only a few months left, and you can’t be sure the next President is going to have this on his agenda at all…

  9. In my mind the absolutely critical thing is securing a unimpeded flow of nuclear fuel for at least the existing reactors at the time (if any) of a nuclear test or any other contingency that might tempt the US or other suppliers to choke the supply of fuel.For once you have 50,000 MW or whatever of nuclear power generation dependent on foreign fuel it does put a very heavy opportunity cost on doing anything that might jeopardize that supply of fuel. Hence if overnight (due to a nuclear test) that capability to generate power is gone, the immediate consequences on the economy of that big a shortage of power will be huge. One can’t really argue that w/o the agreement India wouldn’t have the capability to generate that much of power. No, maybe or definitely not in nuclear power, but it would probably invest in other alternative sources to generate this power. Those alternatives might be more costly in the long-run but the nuclear deal would definitely raise the opportunity costs for a future nuclear test. Therefore it’s imperative for India to secure some kind of legal contract that ensures the supply of nuclear fuel (independent of nuclear tests in the future by India) that at least enables the existing reactors to function smoothly. Of course there are lots of benefits, direct and indirect from the deal. But for the GOI to argue that there exists no constraints on a future test is quite deceptive. Yes of course as a sovereign nation one can test any time but what of the tremendous opportunity costs that would exist once the massive nuclear power generation capabilities that are being contemplated takes place.

  10. Sriram, Nitin,

    Here is my understanding of the 4 points raised by Sriram (nice framework, BTW!):

    (a) There are 2 kinds of hindrances to nuclear power generation – technological and fuel supply-related. As to technological, our scientific establishment seems to be of the view that we are doing just fine. But fuel supply is a big concern. We have plenty of Thorium, but that cycle is still far from perfection. So we must get Uranium. As to development of nukes, our scientific establishment appears to be of the view that we have enough technology to make nukes and we don’t need further testing as of now. What we need to concentrate on is the delivery mechanism – which is not affected by the deal in any way. As one can see, having a Hiroshima-like nuke (with 60 year old technology) is enough, if you can promise to deliver it on the spot. This, one can say, is the current state of affairs.

    (b) This is a bit hypothetical. As of now, India doesn’t seem to be planning an unprovoked test – if we were, then we wouldn’t be negotiating this deal. But lets say that we become reckless and conduct a test tonight. I think we would become an instant pariah and would lose credibility tremendously. Not to forget, that such a test would have retaliation from our neighbours from the West (and given the current environment, may be from the North-East also, and who knows where-from after that). I would expect even more stringent sanctions from all the developed countries – including economic sanctions (apart from technological) because that would hurt us the most right now. Ah, almost forgot: there would be no nuclear deal of course 🙂

    (c) The state of affairs, as outlined in (a), would be considerably better – especially with regard to fuel supply. Those people who say that we would be given outdated technology forget one thing: who is going to place orders for that kind of technology? I trust our scientific establishment to be more prudent than that. And if the market opens up (only possible if NSG gives us a clean waiver), then suppliers would have an incentive to provide better technology. Regardless of this, gains in terms of access to fuel would be tremendous. Also, we would have to amend our domestic laws to allow the entry of Indian private sector into the nuclear energy sector. From what I hear, they are eagerly waiting for the same. The development of our nukes would remain unaffected, but the credibility of our credible nuclear deterrent would go up a bit because the domestic fuel supply would have different priorities after the deal. However, the biggest gain (in my opinion) would be from access to dual-use technologies. Our private sector (cutting across economic sectors) would gain a lot. I also expect Indo-US relationship to be progressive in nature and more (and better) deals in several other sectors would follow in the years to come.

    (d) If India tests after the deal becomes operation, then the impact of conducting tests would depend on various factors: the time gap between doing the deal and testing, the geopolitical world order at the time of testing, specific circumstances leading to the testing etc. Once again, I doubt if we are going to see an unprovoked test from India anytime soon. I think we did 5 tests at one go because we wanted to test several things at once, knowing that such chances can not be taken every now and then. So if we do a test after the deal becomes operational, the impact would depend on the prevailing geopolitical scenario. I expect India to have an even stronger hand in world affairs by then, than what it was in 1998.

    “If (c) is better than (a) and if (d) is not worse than (b), we should go for the deal.”

    Did you recently take GMAT? 😉

    By my understanding, (c) is better than (a), and (d) would be nowhere close to being as bad as (b).

    This was typed rather hurriedly, so I might have missed out on a couple of points that have a bearing on the matter. More thoughts welcome.

  11. Following on Nanda and Ananda, if the deal doesn’t happen under Bush, it’ll most likely will not happen under the democrats, especially under non-Hillary democrats, like say, Obama. Even a republican may not want to pursue it because he may not have the same interest in the deal, especially if we go slow. And it’s not just a matter of legacies.

    It’s another matter, if we don’t want the deal, ever. But if we do, the time frame to make it happen is fairly small going forward.

  12. This must be the most illuminating discussion on the topic.

    So far most of the posts on this blog have dealt with weapons & deterrence. So I suppose a post on implications for energy security is in order. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from a post from Feb 2006 that elaborates on BOK’s point about reforming the atomic energy regulations.

      But there is one aspect missing from the current debate, and that relates to the nuclear power industry structure. Quite distinct from this debate over how the current pie is sliced is how the deal with the United States will change India’s nuclear power policy. Given the huge gap between demand and supply of electricity in India, there is a case for the government to open up the industry for private and foreign investment. Needless to say, these reactors will be under international safeguards and thus no different from plants that burn coal or spin turbines. Liberalising the nuclear power industry need not affect the government’s nuclear establishment’s work on fast breeder reactors and the weapons programme. But, among other things, it will give President Bush something to carry back to his constituents. [Separation anxiety of the nuclear kind (2)]

    See also Adm Raja Menon’s piece on how private nuclear power producers can enter the market.

  13. Thanks BOK. But a small correction though. I was trying to define state (b) as the absence of the deal. That is the times before the deal was even negotiated. Ofcourse, your definition of (b) as a failure of negotiations is quite in keeping with reality. No, I didn’t take GMAT recently 😀

    Nitin, I know you are not quite an expert in Game Theory, (sic!) but try to formulate a Payoff matrix for this problem in INI. We could update this as and when things unfold and see how well our matrix fares!!

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