What was interesting about the first round of the Indo-US strategic dialogue on nonproliferation was what was missing from the agenda book. Over two days of
talks, little or nothing was said about nuclear test bans or "rolling back" India's nuclear weapons capability. In the past, Washington and New Delhi discussing nukes would mean a tense, torturous affair. Last week in New Delhi it was genial and cooperative.
There were differences. But the areas of disagreement between the two countries have no resemblance to what they were even two years ago.
Before, any common ground between India and the US on the nuclear front was largely accidental. India loudly opposed the entire panoply of treaties and agreements set up by the older nuclear powers to preserve their monopoly of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
India's attempts to scupper the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were just the most recent chapter in a thick tome of dissent.
Today when India and the US talk nukes they have only two areas of difference. One, India's acquisition of the Israeli-made Arrow missile system. Two, India's export control regime for WMD material and knowhow.
The Arrow is a tricky issue. The Israeli-made missile destroyer is the centerpiece of India's planned missile defence shield. As half its components carry US licenses, Washington's green signal is necessary. The US state department has so far resisted the sale of the Arrow.
Nonproliferation hawks at Foggy Bottom believe such a sale would punch a hole in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), one of the many international agreements designed to stop the spread of weapons technology.
Make an exception for India, they argue, and France, Russia and China will all want to ship a missile system off to some client state.
US officials admit that there is also concern about "regional balance." That's a euphemism for fear of how Pakistan will respond to an Arrow system that would negate its much-touted bevy of ballistic missiles? and thus Pakistan's nuclear deterrence. US diplomat were quoted in the Washington Post in July saying the Arrow "could be destabilizing" to the subcontinent.
However, New Delhi has strong supporters in Washington. The Pentagon recently issued an analysis in favour of providing India with the Arrow. It argued the Arrow, being a defensive missile system, is outside the jurisdiction of the MTCR which is about offensive weaponry. Israel is also quietly lobbying on India's behalf.
Ultimately, India's main cheerleader will be US President George W. Bush. Bush and his foreign policy team ardently believe in a new strategic doctrine based on a small nuclear arsenal with an overarching missile defence shield. During one of his early visits to India, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage indicated Washington would have no objections if India adopted a similar doctrine.
The ranks of the state department's nonproliferation section are still filled with the arms control fanatics of Robert Einhorn, US Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation under the Clinton administration. His successor, John Wolf, is less of an ideologue on issues like a test ban than Einhorn was, say diplomatic sources. Eventually, believe Washington observers, the White House will have to make a political decision to let India have the Arrow and override the bureaucrats down below.
The second source of debate is India's export controls on technology, material and personnel involved in WMD production. This problem is largely about nuts and bolts. Neither side really questions India's need to tighten up in this area.
Export controls used to be one of the lesser concerns of the US nonproliferation agenda. After 9/11 it's shot right to the top. Washington has declared that it will move heaven and earth to ensure that WMD do not get into the hands of terrorists. Hence its moves against Iraq and its aggressive negotiations with several countries on their export control regimes.
The US is not too worried about Indian government institutions and agencies leaking nuclear or chemical weapon secrets to anybody. Their main focus is on Indian businesses unconcerned if their clients are terrorists or rogue regimes. US officials have also urged India to monitor individual scientists and engineers who have such knowledge locked in their heads.
As a US official said in May, "The best laws and most comprehensive control lists have little meaning if governments lack the basic capability to control their borders or other key transshipment points."
New Delhi has only recently begun to plug these holes, or bother to look for them. Two recent events have underlined the problem. One was the US government's decision in July to issue sanctions against an Indian citizen, Hans Raj Shiv, for peddling WMD technology to Iran and Iraq. The other was the recent dossier issued by the British government on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's WMD programme. The dossier listed an Indian firm among the illegal suppliers of WMD technology to Iraq.
Privately, Indian officials admit the country's export control system leaks like a sieve. But they have stressed to US officials that as far as official Indian policy goes, New Delhi has a near immaculate record of "conservatism" in selling arms.
More than just Arrows and exports, there is the radical shift in the substance and style of Indo-US discussions on nuclear issues. It was only a few years back that the then US president, Bill Clinton, announced his intention to "freeze, cap and roll back" the nuclear capabilities of countries like India. Contrast this with Wolf's admission in July this year that "there is no near-term prospect of getting India and Pakistan to relinquish their nuclear weapons and missiles."
US diplomats in private say their government is no longer in the business of telling India not to build a nuclear arsenal. If anything, the signs are that the Bush administration will be assisting India to adopt the same "one shield, few missiles" formula that it advocates for the US.
Why have things changed? India was a latecomer to the atomic club, detonating a nuke roughly a decade after the five established nuclear powers. By that time, the club was refusing new members and had set up numerous obstacles to keep out newcomers. Dubbing the entire nuclear nonproliferation regime "discriminatory," India became an atomic dissident.
Then along came missile defence. Faced with a new nuclear order where threats come not from great powers but little menaces like North Korea or Al Qaeda, the US began shifting to a new nuclear doctrine of maximalist shields and minimalist arsenals.
The membership rules of the atomic club were being rewritten. And this time India was going to be the first with an application form at the club door.
Hence its early ndorsement of missile defence. Hence the shrinking gap between the US and India on matters nuclear.
The road is far from clear. Layers of dual use technology sanctions applied by the US against India still have to be peeled away. By most accounts, US officials have uncovered a number of legal loopholes that will allow India to wiggle through such sanctions.
India also has to keep an eye on the Democratic party. There are still plenty of Democratic leaders, like Senator Joe Biden, who still hope to resuscitate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the entire system of multilateral nonproliferation agreements.
The Indian foreign ministry says it is not too bothered. A senior Indian government official said, "Clinton was a Democrat. He came around to our viewpoint." New Delhi is adamant about only one thing. "The US needs to accept India as a de facto nuclear power. We are prepared to keep waiting until they do," said an Indian official in August.
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