Fear an impetuous Modi at Washington nuclear security summit

The fourth and the last of the Barack Obama-inspired nuclear security summits (NSSs) in Washington is upon us. Leaders from many countries (except Russia), Prime Minister Narendra Modi among them, will meet in plenary sessions on April 1 to take stock. It will be hard for them not to conclude that notwithstanding some progress in agreeing on the ways and means to deny access to nuclear materials by terrorist outfits, the absence of any movement on the underlying disarmament ideal means this talk shop too will end up consolidating a global order of the nuclear Haves and Have-nots. Indeed, US Obama indicated as much.The US is committed, he wrote in an op/ed in the Washington Post (March 30), “to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons” and only secondarily “to seeking a world without them.” His Administration’s budgetary allocation on international security supports this thrust, falling from $800 million in 2012 to some $500 million this year(http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/30/science/nuclear-fuels-are-vulnerable-despite-a-push.html.

Rather than making the world safe from nuclear weapons, the NSSs have only made it safe for nuclear weapons (and those states possessing them), which is fine as far as India is concerned.

In trying to set a post-NSS/post-Obama nuclear agenda a Harvard study – ‘Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline?’ by Matthew Bunn, et al., has tried to flesh out the international mechanisms (agreed in these Meets) and the mechanics of protecting and safeguarding nuclear materials.(See http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/PreventingNuclearTerrorism-Web.pdf ) Unwittingly, this report hints at the problems inherent in tackling the potential menace of N-terrorism in the manner the NSSs have proposed. It also prefigures traps that Obama may set for Modi.

Reflecting the broad biases animating US thinking and policies, the report conceives of two futures –- “low” and “high security” scenarios for 2030. In the South Asia-relevant parts of it, in order to realize the latter, apparently more desirable, scenario, Washington is advised, in essence, to pressure India and Pakistan into capping their N-arms inventories and agreeing on confidence building measures to “greatly reduce the probability of crisis”, which might necessitate the alerting of nuclear forces (pp. 8-9). What this has to do with reducing the potential of nuclear terrorism the authors don’t make clear. One can only surmise that Indo-Pakistan crises situations are assumed as affording terrorists the opportunity to steal nuclear materials and/or capture nuclear weapons. But this is at best a fanciful notion, considering it is precisely in wartime that the protective cover provided by the armed forces for nuclear weapons and their transport/movement will be most severe. A more reasonable explanation is that the authors — charter members of the US nonproliferation mafia, mean to somehow achieve, partially or in full, that old Washington nonproliferation policy goal of “cap, freeze, rollback” using NSS as medium.

The study, moreover, is critical of “non-monetary barriers” – complacency, bureaucracy, and “excessive concerns for secrecy and sovereignty”, prevailing in India & Pakistan, saying it prevents them from taking effective anti-terrorist measures (p.9). Except, these measures include greater nuclear security cooperation between the two countries — which perhaps is not a negotiable idea, between each of them and a strengthened IAEA, and between the two countries separately with the US. It is the last two aspects of an interventionist IAEA – a handmaiden of the US and an intrusive United States, in the nuclear affairs of South Asia, that are the most worrisome.

An it is the Obama government espies possibilities on this front with Modi. Laura Holgate, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director at the National Security Council, said something intriguing. Washington, she averred, was going to use Modi’s presence at the summit “to highlight steps that India has taken in its own nuclear security to go beyond, perhaps, some of the activities that it has done before.” (emphasis mine). What are these “activities” Modi may be cajoled into implementing “beyond” India’s present commitments (such as setting up the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership to, among other things, host workshops organized by the US State Department’s Partnership for Nuclear Security? (This GCNEP is coming up in Haryana, some 200 kms from Delhi.)

Could these additional commitments sought from Modi be in the form of “gift baskets” (an infelicitous phrase used by the Harvard report, p. 75, in light of Modi’s penchant for expensive Rafale buy-like gift-giving) to include Delhi’s subscribing to the “international fuel bank” under construction in Kazakhstan (mentioned by Obama in his op/ed)? This fuel bank is supposed to supply low-enriched uranium fuel for light water reactors so that all countries take to the uranium route for electricity generation rather than follow the plutonium path taken by India with its indigenous natural uranium fueled, heavy water moderated, nuclear reactors. Except, three successive Indian governments — Vajpayee’s, more centrally Manmohan Singh’s and now Modi’s, have chosen to divert from the road to energy independence laid out by the great visionary Homi Bhabha in his 3-stage 1955 plan based on India’s vast thorium reserves, by purchasing largely untested, exorbitantly priced, imported reactors (Westinghouse and General Electric reactors from America, Areva reactors from France and the VVER 1000 reactors from Russia). Fuel bank means India will even forego the slight freedom reprocessing the spent fuel, something that India has so far resisted.

And/or, will Modi, under the rubric of “Building Confidence in Effective Nuclear Security” (pp.70- 74 in Harvard report) agree to open India’s nuclear security system for international and US scrutiny to assess it capacity to deal with “security system design-based threats”. This will require foreign experts “to visit and examine security procedures”. This desire for more classified information about the country’s “approaches to nuclear security” will be legitimated as India merely following through on its UNSCR 1540 obligations, ‘coz nuclear materials from India could be used to threaten other states. MOdi could also be persuaded by the smoothtalking Obama to permit “technical cooperation programs”, inclusive of “in-depth discussions” and visits by foreign experts to “key nuclear facilities” (pp.70-71). Modi could moreover be gently pushed into accepting “bilateral dialogues” with the US of the kind that Washington has ongoing with Pakistan and China. As the Harvard study states plainly: “Not all security improvements depend on cooperation with the United States. But [such] cooperation often accelerates such improvements and offers increased assurance that they are really taking place.” (p.91)

The significant issue India faces is whether its national (security) interest will be better served by further accommodating Washington and making this country’s nuclear and strategic complex more transparent. It is not terrorists India needs to fear as much as the US somehow gaining access into the innards of the country’s nuclear programme. To the extent India has garnered substantive successes in the nuclear weapons (and generally nuclear energy) and missile sectors, it is because these sectors have remained opaque, and not been corralled into any international, bilateral or multilateral arrangements, and hence have enjoyed immense immunity to international diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and Western technology denial regimes. The civilian nuclear deal with the US has already compromised a good part of India’s versatile, dual use, nuclear programme. Should Modi allow further inroads, ostensibly to advance nuclear security, for nothing more than a pat on the back from Obama, India, already on a slippery nonproliferation slope as is already evident, will be reduced to another of America’s camp followers. No wonder US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, soon to visit New Delhi, is reportedly demanding the Modi regime sign the three “foundational agreements” – LSA, CISMOA, and BECA to cement the military relationship between the two countries (as apprehended in a previous post — “India in America’s coils”).

NSS-4 and the foundational ags could mark India’s pell-mell descent. Good bye India as great power.

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.
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5 Responses to Fear an impetuous Modi at Washington nuclear security summit

  1. Shaurya says:

    Looks like FMCT is another topic of discussion at the conference.

  2. MS says:

    Mr Karnad,

    I just do not know why we are raising the issue of terrorism on the international stage again and again and our national dailies belittling pakistan-they may know something that an ordinary citizen does not know.

    For God’s sake, we need to cleverly and intelligently engage with pak. I do not show interest in those leaders who chant slogans against pakistan. The citizens of this country should be more interested in China-matching its military might and forex reserves.

    We have a problem that we only can solve-no other country is going to help us. By raising the spectre of tit for tat war like measures with Pak, we are creating a trap for us that the west will bind us into.

    Give some good welcome to our leaders and they will sign anything-the west believes so. I applaud your earlier suggestion to remove some nuclear posturing on the western borders and thereby encourage pak to also do the same.

    India has do exceedingly well on all fronts to survive-we need the best infra, healthcare support and the economic engines to be running fast, and a strategic march towards self reliance in defence manufacturing. China serves the same quality pretzels in Beijing that you would get in white house-may be even better.

  3. Atul says:

    So how was the nuclear summit? Did he sell out or kept the bottom line intact?

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