Bending over Backwards

In his pronouncements, US president Barack Obama has indicated that American companies will be actively discouraged from investing in production plants abroad, offshoring operations, and exporting jobs; Indian pharmaceutical industries would come under the intellectual property rights hammer, and the H1B visa regime will not be loosened. Taken cumulatively, they pretty much muck up prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for productively courting America.

The serious clash of economic interests only highlights the even more severe collision of strategic interests which, despite the good intentions of both sides, will ensure that, as in the past, only a limited India-US partnership will accrue. This reality, not fully grasped by Delhi, is compounded by the fact that the Indian government operates without any definite ideas about what the national interest is or where it lies on particular issues, whence a lot is negotiated away in return for nothing.

One expected Modi to not turn national interest into a fungible commodity as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had done and, as a canny insider in the evolving global politics in which India’s centrality in an Asian security scheme to contain China is readily conceded, that he would extract maximum concessions from the US while surrendering little. This hope is belied by the list of giveaways in the offing.

On climate, Modi has apparently agreed to 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, bringing India in line with the Western consensus at the upcoming Paris summit. This presumes India can skip the smokestack industrial stage and absorb the inordinately high cost of going in massively for clean energy. It begs the question: Where are the resources for such rapid switching to come from?

Modi’s eagerness to buy enriched uranium-fuelled American reactors of untested design that the US is unwilling to risk installing on its own territory is equally puzzling. Especially because the contemplated executive action to get around provisions in the Civilian Nuclear Damage Liability Act 2010 imposing “unlimited” liability on nuclear technology suppliers is subversive of this Act, which the BJP voted for in Parliament and, which in fact represented a congealing of the opposition to the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the US. But consider the proposed solution: An insurance pool is to be created by the public sector General Insurance Corporation (GIC), meaning that the Indian people will be the guarantors of untested foreign nuclear technology and in case it proves faulty and leads to an accident, will have to pay up for the thermal and radiation deaths in the hundreds of thousands and for damage to public and private property running into billions of rupees in case of a nuclear accident traced to faulty foreign nuclear technology beyond the measly $300 million the supplier company coughs up per the Convention on Supplemental Compensation Manmohan Singh hurriedly signed. With the perpetrators thus going scot-free, it could be the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy plus all over again.

For surrendering so much India gets the promise of entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Though why Modi is keen on joining these groups, considering they are means to drag India into the 1968 non-proliferation treaty net, is a mystery. Indeed, by not buying foreign reactors or joining NSG India can at any time resume testing to obtain a credible thermonuclear deterrent, export without any restraint its highly evolved natural uranium reactors and technology under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and the billions of dollars saved from not buying the inordinately expensive foreign reactors, could be invested in realising the three-stage 1955 Homi Bhabha plan for energy self-sufficiency, by developing on a war-footing the indigenous advanced pressurised heavy water, breeder, and thorium reactors. Indeed, the GIC “insurance pool” could be more imaginatively deployed to insure Indian companies producing indigenous nuclear reactors and ancillary hardware and erect any number of power stations in the country and to export to friendly states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This will spur Indian industry, generate more industrial employment, increase the value of India’s share of global trade, and more vigorously push the “Make in India” policy than putting Indian money in American pockets.

Modi buying into the MTCR is still more troubling. It will mean abandoning the option of paying back China for nuclear missile arming Pakistan by transferring nuclear missile and related technologies to countries on its periphery and compelling Beijing to share in our “nuclear nightmare”. But if pleasing Washington is priority then the rumour doing the rounds gains substance that Avinash Chander was kicked out of DRDO because he was pushing for the 12,000km intercontinental ballistic missile frowned upon by Washington to complement its disapproval of India’s acquiring high-yield thermonuclear warheads/weapons.

The one bright spot is the military-to-military links the 2005 defence cooperation framework has delivered with joint exercises. Its extension to 2025 will mean more of the same laced with billion-dollar buys of US hardware (such as C-17 and C-130J airlifters), a transactional slant Washington is satisfied with. As regards, military technology transfer, Delhi seems reconciled to the US policy of starting low, going slow—hand-launched drones and surveillance modules—as the way to go!

Acknowledging the global power shift, America has been inclined to pass the baton of the predominant power to China in the manner the “weary Titan” Great Britain did to the US during the turn of the previous century. Such a policy was proposed by Obama’s deputy secretary of state James Steinberg and enunciated in 2008-2009 as the doctrine of “strategic reassurance”. It led to the “G-2” concept and president Xi Jinping’s conceiving of “core relations” to, in effect, run the international system. This is the strategic disjunction keeping India-US ties from becoming intimate. Because to brighten the prospects of a possible US-China condominium, Washington since the 1990s has been systematically hindering India strategically, hugely complicating the Indian national security calculus. In the circumstances, bending over backwards to please the US will only invite derision, not win India respect, even less international standing. It is a lesson that remains unlearned.

[Published in the New Indian Express January 23, 2015, at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in arms exports, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, disarmament, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, nonproliferation, nuclear industry, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, nuclear power, Nuclear Weapons, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Bending over Backwards

  1. Anonymous India says:


  2. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    RE. “Acknowledging the global power shift, America has been inclined to pass the baton of the predominant power to China in the manner the “weary Titan” Great Britain did to the US during the turn of the previous century. Such a policy was proposed by Obama’s deputy secretary of state James Steinberg and enunciated in 2008-2009 as the doctrine of “strategic reassurance”. It led to the “G-2” concept and president Xi Jinping’s conceiving of “core relations” to, in effect, run the international system.”

    Hope there are others in the Indian establishment who see this in the manner you do. Mostly it seems the Indian establishment is packed with Rah Rah Randies. US built China up with MFN statuses and forcing the poorer countries to keep adjusting to Chinese mercantalism and exchange rigging. US are the ones that are trying to slip out of Asia and having Japan and South Koreas handle the repurcussions. US is the one trying to push Russian into the Chinese orbit so they can deal with the Russians as a Chinese vassals. US is the one that forces India to keep making concessions to Pakistan while US itself supplies weapons and makes massive infusion of funds into Pakistani economy. US is the one that can take out the Columbian cartel even without direct intervention, but apparently cannot keep a check on the narcotics flowing out of Afghanistan.

    Modi has allowed himself to imagine that sucking upto the US is important because a lot of Pravasi Indians are in US. But these Indians are already intimately tied up with India. You don’t need to suck up to the US. They don’t send in 70 billion USD for nothing. Not for nothing did they subscribe to the Resurgent India Bonds in 98. Modi can easily talk to the Pravasi Bharatiya without having the US become the church in between.

    If Modi persists in this US alaap then a vilaap will not be too far into the future.

    Modi royega.

  3. Email received from former Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (Retd), and reproduced below:

    Greetings ! Brilliantly argued for India . Thank you

  4. Email received from Vice Admiral Jagjit Singh Bedi (Retd), former FOC-in-C, Western Naval Command, reproduced below:

    As always very candidly put across. If what you state is the way we are likely to set our relations with the US, then we are certainly being taken for a ride. On balance it turns out to
    be a No Win situation.

  5. Kapil says:

    Dear Prof KArnad,
    There won’t be thousands of deaths due to radiation in case of a nuclear accident. In Chernobyl disaster, 30 people including workers died due to acute radiation syndrome as per the UNSCEAR study. The possible off-site emergency in case of Generation III reactors would most likely result in temporary displacement of few thousands or more inside the emergency planning zone as happened at TMI which costed roughly $200 million to settle all bonafide/spurious compensation claims. Nuclear insurance is a thriving business for this reason and it makes perfect economic sense to stand guarantor as the money shall remain within the country and foreign suppliers contributing for the pool through insurance premia.

    • How do you know what kind of nuclear accident may occur, courtesy unknown and, untested, and unproven American reactor technology? Do all accidents have to necessarily adhere to the Chernobyl or Three Mile disasters? The larger more significant point you are, perhaps, missing out on is the fact that the same insurance pool could have stood guarantees for the natural ur-heavy water moderated reactors our nuclear programme has specialized in and has the most expertise in running at home and in friendly countries abroad, and given a fillip to the Indian domestic nuclear industry rather than reviving in the US case and sustaining in the case of the Russian and French, their respective nuclear industries.

      • Kapil says:

        TMI, Chernobyl & Fukushima has enabled considerable safety learning that allows today to more correctly predict the outcome of nuclear accidents. The Gen III reactor designs are evolutionary and includes safety systems which are tested and proven. Nevertheless, I agree with you on the point to expand existing PHWR programme. In one of the recent roundtables I specifically questioned Dr S K Banerjee, Former AEC chairman on the rationale for imported PWRs in the existing fuel cycle, to which he responded, “PWRs are easy to operate than PHWRs”. Possibly, the DAE seeks to indigenise PWRs in coming years. Already two Russian PWRs are built and four more will be built which can be incrementally indigenised in next decade or so. Its not clear to me, why do we then need American & French PWR designs in addition to Russian VVERs.

  6. Kapil says:

    Also, Dr AG is unnecessarily excited about Obama visit. No nuclear agreement is going to be signed or at least the price contract agreement is clearly impossible at this stage but his anti-nuclear friends can file few more PILs challenging the validity of CLNDA rules and non-applicability of tort claims against suppliers in case of nuclear accident which India is assuring US suppliers.

  7. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Koodankulam great game. What can one say. You reap what you sow.
    PILs another way.

    CLNDA is not the point where Manmohan Singh govt. gave a similar way out to Russia ie. by way of indemnities and general insurances. The point is that India can do it on its own. The last government was doing it to keep US in good mood. Modi dose not have to do it, ideally speaking.

    Even more damaging is the MTCR surrender. India is to be the player in containing china but it cannot do anything unless US allows it. Who thought out such proposals? Mister Prime Minister hope you do not have to seek permission for a counter bombardment at the western borders.

  8. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Re. “it makes perfect economic sense to stand guarantor as the money shall remain within the country and foreign suppliers contributing for the pool through insurance premia.”

    How do you know the premium would be paid to Indian Companies. What if their are US companies. And instead of getting premium paid to Indian companies a new idea is not floated. That of liberalizing FDI in Insurance sector as usual to attract ‘advanced technology’.

  9. Atul says:

    Is GoI really thinking of or planning to sign LSA / CISMOA / BECA with American government ? What has changed since the last refusal? All those intrusive clauses for installation, maintenance and inventorying of electronic gadgets are still there or gone? Are the Indian, European or Israeli replacements not working?

    Does it look like a repeat of PM Vajpayee’s visit to China where he acceded to Chinese pressure of “Tibet being a part of China” without getting a written agreement on “Sikkim as part of India”? Just verbal assurance was fine with resulting in dispute over ‘finger areas’ a couple years later !! Ebullience is fine, undue haste is not.

  10. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Is the rumored 12000 km range missile that Dr. Avinash Chander supposedly pushed the Agni VI or is it a different project ? Or is it that the Govt is against Agni vi itself ?

  11. satyaki says:

    So the current Govt appears to have dismissed Dr. Chander for pressing for the A-6. If so, that is a big let down. Did not expect Modi to become another Vajpayee. If he continues down this path, 2019 will be another 2004.

  12. Last — my thought exactly!

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