The most important accomplishment of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, from the perspective of New Delhi, was to bring an end to India’s isolation from the nuclear mainstream. But one of the most important consequences of that diplomatic success, and one little understood by the broader public, was to put an end to dual-use technological sanctions. Because of India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, India was denied access to technologies that had both civilian and military applications in dozens of sectors ranging from space rockets to ship sensors, from nuclear power to pharmaceuticals. President George W. Bush was able to peel back the first layer of sanctions, those at the international level. He also removed some of the sanctions that existed at the US level. However, it will be up to President Barack Obama to end the remaining barriers that remain at the national level.
At a time when India’s economic competitiveness is increasingly dependent on its ability to master high-end technology, accessing dual-use technologies is essential. When Tata Steel bought Corus Steel, it automatically became the owner of sensitive steel capabilities. While Tata Steel could manufacture such steel, under dual-use sanctions it couldn’t sell or make it in India. Troubling for pre-nuclear deal India was that not only were almost all cutting-edge industrial and technology sectors running afoul of sanctions, the number of technologies being placed under sanctions was increasing. India, in effect, was being increasingly forced to use only obsolete technologies in almost every conceivable economic sector. Certain sunrise sectors like defence, space and precision engineering would simply never exist in India except in relatively primitive forms. Civilian nuclear trade, of course, was almost impossible for India.
While such technology sanctions were demeaning to India, they were in the long term a real and tangible threat to the economic prosperity of the country. The so-called Indo-US nuclear deal can rightly be called the Indo-US “high technology” deal, so important was the ending of sanctions to the agreement. The expectation is that the Obama visit to India will mark the end of such sanctions, including sanctions levied against specific government agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation. The US will benefit too: advanced technology is exactly the sort of export that the US excels in. It’ll also make technological cooperation, especially in the form of merging the two countries’ innovation cycles, between India and the US much easier. “Export controls” and “dual use” are the sort of terminology that puts many to sleep. But they will lie at the heart of the US president’s coming visit to India and be an indication of how much further the two countries trust each other.