On the eve of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in Washington for a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, the New York Timespublished an editorial that weighed in on a subject certain to feature on the leaders’ agenda: India’s bid for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The Times opined that the United States should not support India’s membership bid as, “Membership would enhance India’s standing as a nuclear weapons state, but it is not merited until the country meets the group’s standards.” The editorial advised Obama to “press for India to adhere to the standards on nuclear proliferation to which other nuclear weapons states adhere.” It added that the 2008 U.S.-India civil-nuclear agreement had “encouraged” Pakistan to expand its nuclear weapons program.
Many in India and the small community of India-watchers in Washington read these words in disbelief. First, the suggestion that Pakistan’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons, including those that can be deployed on a battlefield, is a direct result of civil-nuclear energy cooperation with India strikes many as a misread of Pakistan’s motivations. As C. Christine Fair has elucidated in great detail, Pakistan’s strategic culture rests on a constant quest to battle India, seeing itself as India’s equal, and unsatisfied with the territorial status quo. Second, the Times’ view that India has not met nuclear nonproliferation standards expected from it misreads the obligations India willingly took on in its civil-nuclear negotiation with the United States. Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan has analyzed Indian obligations carefully here, arguing that India should be held to the commitments it took on beginning in 2005.
The Times has every right to an independent view. This of course does not reflect the clear commitment the United States government has made to India. However, the American paper of record should ground its arguments in an appraisal of the complete facts. The editorial skipped the most germane facts of the genesis of the civil-nuclear agreement, and therefore presented an incomplete view.
India is not a signatory to the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and in the nearly fifty years since the NPT’s inception, New Delhi has maintained one consistent objection: the Treaty creates nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” by legally defining a “nuclear weapons state” as one which tested nuclear devices before January 1, 1967. States which signed the treaty but had not tested before 1968 would fall into the legal category of “non-nuclear weapons states” and would take on specific obligations to ensure they did not develop a weapons program (full-scope safeguards on facilities, for example). The countries which met the threshold to be declared nuclear weapons states did not have a similar set of requirements. Former external affairs minister of India, Jaswant Singh, summarized India’s objection to the Treaty in his 1998 Foreign Affairs article, “Against Nuclear Apartheid.”
When the New York Times speaks of India adhering to the standards of other “nuclear weapons states,” it skips over the fact that the term has a very specific, legal meaning in the NPT, and that India will never legally become a “nuclear weapons state” according to the terms of that treaty. Thus India has stayed outside of it. While only a handful of countries have remained outside the NPT (India, Pakistan, and Israel never signed; North Korea withdrew), in India’s case its civilian nuclear energy, defense, and high technology industries suffered from not being able to access the kinds of technology that the global nonproliferation regime prevented non-signatories from obtaining. New Delhi long stated that it believed in global disarmament, but on a “non-discriminatory” basis, and for that reason also refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, although since 1998 the country has repeatedly stated its commitment to a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. Nonproliferation created a chasm between India and the United States after India’s 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion.”
From 2005 onward, the George W. Bush administration sought a way to deepen strategic cooperation with India—including defense cooperation and sharing of advanced technology—as well as to promote clean energy development in India through the civil-nuclear agreement. Due to India’s “neither-fish-nor-fowl” status, as Ashley Tellis put it, in the narrow legal terms of the NPT, and given the zero probability of India’s accession to the treaty, the civil-nuclear agreement carefully worked out a method to enable cooperation on nuclear energy, while setting aside the question of India’s weapons program.
Through the terms of the agreement, India separated its civilian from its strategic programs. It agreed to put the civilian energy programs under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards (through an “India-specific safeguards” agreement) although this is usually obligatory only for non-nuclear weapons states. India also changed its domestic laws to align its export controls with those of the Missile Technology Control Regime, the NSG, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group. In other words, India took on obligations more extensive than the technical requirements of a “nuclear weapons state” under the NPT definition, while not formally becoming one. On its part, the U.S. committed to help shepherd India’s membership in these four key regimes.
The question that U.S. policymakers struggled with—and the agreement was indeed controversial—rested not only on the larger strategic significance of deepened cooperation with India, but also on whether the global nonproliferation order was strengthened through the steps India agreed to take.
Looking back on the eleven years since this all began, my own view is that the nonproliferation order has been undeniably strengthened since the advent of the nuclear deal. India had never proliferated its nuclear technology to any other country, and it was not going to sign the NPT to become a non-nuclear weapons state, so the fact that it has remained outside the Treaty has been a net-neutral development. But it has put its civilian reactors under IAEA safeguards, a new obligation that as a consequence limits the amount of weapons-usable material it could produce; it has strengthened its export controls domestically; and it now sees itself as a stakeholder in maintaining, not opposing, the nonproliferation order. India supports a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty; it continues to argue for globally nondiscriminatory nuclear disarmament; and it seeks to formally join the four above-mentioned nonproliferation regimes. It has also maintained its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. By any metric this should be seen as more than meeting the “standards” required, and a net positive.
The New York Times editorial board is entitled to oppose U.S. backing for an Indian place in the NSG. But its readers would be better served if its arguments didn’t elide important background information on how our two countries arrived at their present position.