Narendra Modi is taking forward the Indo-US deal to end the “nuclear apartheid” India faced and engineer its acceptance as a nuclear weapons power on the world stage.
Washington: It was a short visit but Prime Minister Narendra Modi maximised the time and presence of 50 world leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit to India’s advantage with sharp and targeted diplomacy.
Modi highlighted India’s progress in developing a “strong security culture” to establish even more “street creds” as a responsible nuclear power. At the same time, he used the opportunity to garner support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – the next step in the world’s acceptance of India in the global nuclear scheme.
Key announcements at the summit included India joining three “gift baskets” or joint endeavours in priority areas – countering nuclear smuggling, the contact group in Vienna to carry on the work of the summit, and sharing best practices through centres of excellence. In addition, New Delhi will host an international conference with Interpol, a key player in preventing the smuggling of nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical materials.
Modi released India’s national progress report, which underlines the various steps the country has taken on nuclear security – updating export controls for companies manufacturing nuclear technology, taking “robust strides” towards implementing nuclear safeguards, setting up an inter-ministerial counter-smuggling team, using low-enriched uranium instead of high-enriched uranium (HEU) and shutting down the only reactor using HEU, setting up 23 response centres across the country to take care of any nuclear or radiological emergency and putting a cyber security architecture in place.
Apart from doing things at home, India is also active on the international front. It announced a $1 million grant for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the lead organisation invested in strengthening nuclear security, in addition to the $1 million it contributed in 2013.
The slew of Indian offers should mitigate complaints about New Delhi not pulling its weight or hiding in a cloud of opacity. Indian officials are hopeful the international community led by the US will respond positively.
It is clear that Modi is vigorously taking forward the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal, hammered together by his predecessor Manmohan Singh and the Bush administration, to end the “nuclear apartheid” India faced and engineer the acceptance of the country as a nuclear weapons power on the world stage.
If one were to guess what Modi said to US President Barack Obama during the working dinner on Thursday, March 31, when he was seated on one side and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the other, it would have been to urge Obama to show him the money – as they say in America – and to get his bureaucracy moving to put more meat and meaning in the American pivot.
US sources confirmed they are working to move things along for India’s membership in the NSG at the June plenary after a period of what New Delhi saw as neglect.
The selection of world leaders with whom Modi sought meetings over two days was also aimed at rallying support within the NSG. He met the leaders of Canada, Kazakhstan, Britain, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Japan – not by random selection but by intelligent design. They all are members of the NSG, the group that controls the export of nuclear technology and which, ironically, was set up in response to India’s first nuclear test in 1974.
Yes, there were glowing tributes by Modi to bilateral relations with each country’s leader but the real aim was to win more friends and convince the sceptics and massage those already supportive. The idea – the more positive the feelings towards India’s NSG entry, the more isolated will be the opponents and the greater the chance of success.
Nordic countries, traditionally critical of India’s nuclear weapons’ programme, have softened their stance. In reality, the only real opposing party is China, which just happens to be Pakistan’s all-weather friend and also a violator of NSG rules. Those violations have gone unpunished by the rest of the member countries.
It is believed that if China is left as the last man standing against India’s entry, it may decide to back off, especially if Washington puts its might behind the effort in pushing New Delhi’s case, as it did in back in 2008. This is the stuff of which nuclear diplomacy is made – it helps that Modi has hardy “sherpas” in the external affairs ministry who understand both the substance and politics of the nuclear issue.
Even though Modi had met British prime minister David Cameron just three months ago, he made sure to seek him out again in Washington to ensure the British continued their support and used their influence with other European leaders in the NSG in India’s favour. Modi recalled his November visit to London that “changed bilateral relations forever”, created “history” at Wembley, and made ties ever “richer”, in the words of Vikas Swarup, the spokesman for the external affairs ministry.
Similarly with Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau, Modi ensured the young leader heard India’s story from the horse’s mouth. It was the first time the two met – it was Stephen Harper who was prime minister when Modi visited Canada last year and secured a $350 million deal for Canadian uranium, ending the long moratorium on doing nuclear business with India. Winning Trudeau’s confidence was important.
And so it went with Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand, considered a mild sceptic about India’s entry into the NSG. They discussed cricket to break the ice but then it was business as usual, sources said.
Addressing American concerns
Constructive as these engagements were, the fact remains that the bulk of the burden has to be carried by American sherpas at the NSG. If they succeed, it would be a game changer for bilateral relations. Obama and Modi have mentioned the NSG in their joint statements and India has taken many steps to fulfil its part of the bargain.
After losing the ball during UPA II, New Delhi has moved hard to inject momentum into the Indo-US civil nuclear deal to address American complaints about liability issues.
The insurance pool is up and running and money has been raised from the private sector, which should be music to American ears. India has upped the offer to Westinghouse from two to six units to make everything more economical, from construction costs to the cost of power. This grows the pie from $8 billion to $24 billion for the US nuclear vendor. The company is now engaged in talent spotting for trained personnel to begin construction of the nuclear plants.
The new attitude is also reflected in India being “more open” and less defensive about its nuclear programme. It is participating in more expert group meetings, submitting joint papers with the US, and seeking technical help. India is making sure that it is part of the dialogue moving forward after this fourth and last Nuclear Security Summit.
There is little point in listing how Pakistan hasn’t played by the rules – exhibit A being its fervent pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons and exhibit B the presence of radical elements within its armed forces, both of which have given American officials major headaches.
In the end, officials hope that India’s efforts in helping to achieve the summit’s primary goal – preventing increasingly tech savvy terrorists from ever getting close to anything nuclear – made an impact at the nuclear gathering.
The question facing the international community: Does it make sense to keep India out of the global export control regimes?