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Red Lines at the Washington Summit

Last updated on: April 12, 2010 16:30 IST
T P Sreenivasan on what India needs to watch out for at the nuclear summit.

Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao had on her face the satisfaction of a sherpa, who had prepared his chief to ascend the summit when she announced that the prime minister would go to Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit.

Indeed, she has been working on the outcome of the summit for several months. But she appeared sanguine that the Summit (April 12-13) would serve our twin interests of securing international cooperation to combat nuclear terrorism and of expanding the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. India would propose to host a Nuclear Security Centre in India and India would be seen as a responsible nuclear weapons power.

Nuclear security is like motherhood. It needs no reiteration or elaboration. The world has a great stake in nuclear security as even a nuclear element from a peaceful device in the hands of the terrorists would play havoc. A number of initiatives have been taken within the IAEA and outside since September 11, 2001, some of them informal arrangements with voluntary participation.

Quite obviously, President Obama did not have to get 43 heads of state and government to Washington to press the importance of nuclear security. The purpose of the Summit is to add a fourth pillar to the non-proliferation regime in the form of a set of measures on nuclear security.

In other words, the summit is as much about non-proliferation as about nuclear security. And coming as it does just before the NPT Review Conference, India has to approach the objectives and outcome of the Summit with some caution. They will go beyond nuclear security and expansion of peaceful uses.

One of the points that India had stressed right from 2001 was that while the dangers were real, the concerns on security should not result in exacerbating the fear of nuclear energy. We would do a disservice to humanity if we were to scare away countries, particularly developing countries, from seeking to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Some members of the IAEA even alleged that by linking security to safety, new conditionalities were being added to peaceful uses. Our purpose of expanding peaceful uses will not be served by the Summit projecting a doomsday scenario of a terrorist hiding behind every X-ray machine.

The exposure of several people to radiation in New Delhi the other day could not have come at a worse time for India. This will receive considerable attention in the Washington corridors. The source of contamination of the scrap is not known, though available information points to imported material. The fact that there are no strict controls over imported scrap will be pointed out. The IAEA, which may have begun an investigation, revealed a while ago that all the nuclear material reported lost had not been recovered, while some material, which was never reported lost had been found.

Both India and Pakistan will be uncomfortable with the centrality of the NPT that the Summit will reiterate, even though non-signatories to the NPT have also been invited. India has refrained from subscribing to any document that endorses NPT in any form, but there is a serious possibility of the Washington document reiterating the importance of universalising the NPT.

It will also seek to compliment the US and Russia for their arms reduction agreement and the new nuclear posture of the US. India will need masterly drafting skills to find the language, which will protect our position of dissatisfaction over partial disarmament measures.

Iran and North Korea will figure not only in the talks but also in the outcome. In fact, Iran will be the Prince of Denmark in the Washington play. The prime minister of Israel will not attend, but the minimum that the US and Israel would want is the establishment of a linkage between terrorism and Iranian nuclear ambitions.

India would not like Iran to be a nuclear weapon State, but it will be hard for India to highlight its terrorism dimension.

The nonproliferation ayatollahs in Washington have their own agenda for the summit and they have a wish list to prescribe for non-nuclear weapon States. A proposal for a fuel bank has already run into rough weather in the IAEA in Vienna with an abstention by India.

While India has really no objection to the setting up of fuel banks for countries that do not have their own fuel cycles, many developing countries see the bank proposal as a ploy to deny enrichment rights, which are permitted under the NPT.

Arguments have been made that the fuel banks will be a welcome facility for those who wish to get fuel for peaceful uses. The Washington summit may well seek an endorsement of the fuel bank concept.

The Washington summit is as much about nonproliferation and arms control as about nuclear security. Encouragement of peaceful uses is far from the minds of the organisers. The Prague speech, the Security Council resolution, the nuclear posture review, the START agreement and the Washington Summit will all lead to the NPT Review Conference, where the nuclear weapon States will meet stiff opposition from the non nuclear weapon States.

No consensus has been possible on nuclear disarmament for several years and if there is another failure in the next review conference, the edifice of NPT will reach, in the favourite phrase of the US strategic writers, 'the tipping point.' The US will want India to let it off the hook as we did in Copenhagen.

Indeed, there is an opinion in Washington that the Copenhagen formula should apply to disarmament also. Instead of prescribing legally binding and verifiable cuts of nuclear arms, all countries should bring to the table voluntary commitments for arms reduction. These would be implemented by the countries concerned, subject to international monitoring and verification. This would mean that everyone, regardless of the size of their arsenals, would be brought into the nonproliferation net.

When Hillary Clinton mentioned that India and Pakistan had upset the nuclear balance, she had hinted that the two countries should also reduce their weapons. Is she proposing 30 per cent reduction in the nuclear warheads of all countries, whether they have 1,500 or a handful?

For Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Washington visit is an opportunity to restore the warmth in bilateral relations in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But for Obama, the summit is another instrument to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and to preserve its position of strength, without appearing to be unreasonable. It remains to be seen whether there will be a golden mean achieved between the two different agendas.

T P Sreenivasan is a former Indian ambassador and is a member of the National Security Advisory Board, New Delhi.

T P Sreenivasan