The U.S.-India civil nuclear deal
cleared its toughest international hurdle this past weekend when the 45-nation
Nuclear Supplier's Group (NSG) developed a consensus on approving civilian
nuclear transfers to India for the first time in over three decades. The NSG
decision marks a significant victory for those who welcome India's rising
global economic and political influence and the contribution New Delhi will
make toward improving stability and security in Asia in coming years.
Following three years of painstaking
U.S.-Indian negotiations and political opposition in India that almost toppled
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress-led government, the deal faces its
last hurdle: U.S. congressional approval of a resolution to operationalize the
agreement. Though time is tight—with only three weeks left until the 110th
Congress recesses for elections—lawmakers should do everything possible to
finalize the deal before the end of the year, since it will solidify ties with
a key Asian nation that shares our democratic values and geopolitical concerns.
The NSG vote in favor of India was
hard-won as the grouping makes its decisions on a consensus basis, which
allowed some of the less powerful non-supplier nations (such as Austria, New
Zealand, and Ireland) to raise roadblocks to the deal, even though major NSG
countries such as the U.S., Russia, France, and the U.K. favored its passage.
The Chinese—buoyed by the unexpected
opposition from the smaller NSG nations—threatened the agreement with
last-minute concerns first signaled last Monday through an article in the
Chinese Communist Party's English language daily. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang
Jiechi is in India this week, where he is facing tough questions from his
Indian interlocutors on its role in Vienna and the unexpected public rebuke of
the nuclear deal, despite several earlier assurances from Chinese leaders that
Beijing would not block consensus. Indian strategic affairs analyst Uday Bhaskar
attributed the maneuvering to longstanding competition between the two Asian
rivals. Bhaskar said, "Clearly, until now China has been the major power
in Asia. … With India entering the NSG, a new strategic equation has been
introduced into Asia and this clearly has caused disquiet to China."
Overcoming a Tight Congressional
As part of the process to make the
deal operational through a final congressional vote, the Bush Administration
must now submit a Presidential Determination to the U.S. Congress that includes
details on the following:
- The bilateral 123 agreement reached last year;
- The India-specific safeguards agreement reached with
the International Atomic Energy Agency in August; and
- This past weekend's waiver from the NSG.
Current law requires Congress to
consider the nuclear deal package for 30 continuous legislative days before
voting on it. If no lame duck session is held after the November 4 U.S.
elections, Congress would need to waive the 30-day requirement in order to be
able to vote on the deal before the last day of the congressional session, now
set for September 26. Congressional leaders in both the House and the Senate
would have to push hard for this, since lawmakers will be busy seeking to wrap
up various legislative matters (mostly domestic) before the end of the two-year
Some Members of Congress,
particularly House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D–CA),
will likely want to hold additional hearings and/or consultations on the civil
nuclear deal before allowing it to move to a vote. Last year, Berman and
ranking member of the committee Illean Ros-Lehtinen introduced a resolution
calling for the U.S. President to withhold support for any proposed exemption
for India from the NSG guidelines that was not fully consistent with the Hyde
Act and did not incorporate a number of provisions, including the immediate
termination of all nuclear commerce by the NSG member-states if India detonates
a nuclear device.
Several hearings were held in both
the House and Senate in 2005–2006 relating to this question, as well as other
aspects of the deal, and Congress issued hundreds of detailed "questions
for the record" to the Bush Administration to help form the basis of the
Hyde Act, which was passed almost two years ago. Moreover, senior
Administration officials have assured congressional leaders on several
occasions that any civil nuclear trade with India would be fully consistent
with the terms of the Hyde Act.
Undue delay in moving the civil
nuclear deal to a final vote in Congress would likely raise suspicions in India
about overall U.S. intentions toward the deal. The release of a confidential
letter of assurances from the Bush Administration to Berman on the eve of the
NSG deliberations last week provoked a firestorm of Indian allegations that
Washington was seeking to constrain India's strategic options. The political
opposition used the opportunity to criticize the government for kowtowing to
U.S. interests. Additionally, if the deal lapses into the next U.S.
Administration, it could take several months before it is considered in the new
Congress, which is about the time India heads into its own national elections,
casting more uncertainty over the final fate of the deal.
The letter that was released to the
public last week by Berman should give confidence to U.S. lawmakers that India
understands the importance of the nuclear testing issue and that any potential
future nuclear detonations would certainly have negative repercussions on the
civil nuclear deal. New Delhi cannot, however, legally bind itself on this
sensitive matter, since it does not have control over the actions of other
nuclear-armed states in its strategic environment, namely Pakistan and China.
The U.S. has the tools it requires
to both remain faithful to its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations and
to bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream. If this historic nuclear
deal is finalized, it will contribute to strengthening global nonproliferation
by making New Delhi a stakeholder in a system seeking to adapt itself to the
most serious proliferation threats of the 21st century. There is no good reason
to delay this landmark initiative any longer.