October 7, 2008

A U.S.-India Nuclear Deal?

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What does the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal mean?

This past week, amongst the chaos of the bailout and financial crisis, the Senate approved the pending nuclear deal between the United States and India. In the final several years of the Bush Administration, cooperation with India has been one of the administration’s key goals. This nuclear deal, which entails the transfer of technology for the development of India’s nuclear industry, signals a marked shift for U.S. policy both in terms of proliferation and regional partners.

In terms of proliferation policy, this deal ends the boycott of India by nuclear nations in response to its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which began during the testing of nuclear weapons in the late 1990’s. To critics, this agreement is a double-standard, favoring India at the expense of Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. For supporters it is simply recognizing the de-facto situation and rewarding India’s cooperation by incorporating it into the international nuclear community.

The deal marks a shift in U.S.-India relations as well as the solidification of India as a regional ally. During the Cold War, India was a leading member of the Non-Alligned Movement and opponent of U.S. “imperialism” and free market international trade. Since market reforms in the 1990’s and India’s subsequent explosive economic growth, it has become increasingly clear that India will be a world player in the years to come, making it an important potential partner. Facing perennially unstable Pakistan, Islamic and other terrorism and historically antagonistic relations with China, India has an uncertain regional position and is in the market for allies. Its long-standing democratic government makes it an amenable partner for American domestic sensibilities. With the growing influence of China and India in Asia, it is not hard to see the U.S. relying on India to contain growing Chinese influence, especially in the Southeast Asia.

From India’s standpoint the deal is important both for its material benefits and for legitimizing India as a responsible rising power. The importance of the deal to the India’s government can be seen in the political risks the leadership was willing to take. The vote on the deal nearly led the current government to collapse, as the Communist Party pulled out of the ruling Congress Party-led coalition, forcing the vote to go down to the wire, with allegations of vote tampering leveled against the government. In years and administrations to come, don’t be surprised to hear about the importance of the “U.S.-India Strategic Partnership.” I think that such a partnership will be at the core of our future south and southeast Asian policies.