India’s “Special Circumstances

30 June 2006

India’s “Special Circumstances

By Gwynne Dyer

“The deal we made with India was under special circumstances,” said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Pakistan on 28 June, dodging a question about why Washington is absolving India of its nuclear sins while leaving its old ally Pakistan unshriven. After all, India and Pakistan both tested their nuclear weapons in the same month in 1998. What did Rice mean, “special circumstances”?

She meant that India is America’s new ally in the region, and much more important in US strategy nowadays than Pakistan. The military agreement signed by India and the United States in June of last year is the “special circumstances” that make it necessary to exempt India from US anti-proliferation law. The new alliance will be crippled if it doesn’t, so the Bush administration also signed a nuclear deal with India last July and promised to push it through Congress.

Existing US law bans the American government from exporting nuclear technology to countries that have not put their own nuclear facilities under full-scope anti-proliferation safeguards. India, like Pakistan, has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has openly tested nuclear weapons, so it falls under that ban — and the prohibition goes much wider than just nuclear reactor parts and fuel. It covers “dual-use” technology that could be used either with conventional weapons or with nuclear ones.

As a senior official in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs explained this week, there is so much “dual-use” technology in modern American weaponry that almost any weapon India wants to buy from the US might fall victim to the ban. So if the alliance is to prosper, India must be exempted from the US law. As for Pakistan — well, the circumstances there are not so special. That alliance was concluded a long time ago, and anyway Pakistan is less important to America’s long-term strategy.

All last week, as the law that makes India an exception made its way through the International Relations Committee of the US House of Representatives and the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, the Indian media gave breathless, play-by-play reports on its progress, because almost the entire Indian elite believes that becoming America’s primary ally on the Asian mainland will speed the country’s emergence as a great power. With the White House strongly backing the bill and the influential Indo-American community lobbying hard, it passed both committees easily,and its passage by the full House and Senate seems certain.

US anti-proliferation activists feel that they have lost a crucial battle, but they haven’t, really. American law was never going to stop India from getting its own nukes, especially when Pakistan was getting nuclear weapons technology from China. The US has been pretty inconsistent in applying the law anyway: it never tries to enforce it against Israel, which has nukes coming out of its ears and has also never signed the NPT. If the battle against proliferation has been lost, it was not lost on this field.

What is being lost here is the opportunity to hold a public debate in the United States about the advisability of concluding what amounts to a military alliance with India. Close friendship, strong trade links, all sorts of cooperation between the world’s two largest democracies are undoubtedly good things and much to be desired, but a military alliance is a quite different thing and not so obviously desirable.

A military alliance between the world’s sole superpower and one of Asia’s two rising giants cannot fail to be seen as directed against the other Asian giant, China, though almost everybody in New Delhi and many people in Washington strenuously deny it. The risk here is of self-fulfilling prophecy: that by defining China as the potential enemy and taking steps to “contain” it, you convince the Chinese that you are their enemy. Verbal declarations that the alliance is not aimed at China may speak less loudly than arms sales, joint exercises and formal military agreements which suggest that it is.

Maybe it’s harmless. Maybe the Chinese are ultra-sophisticated people with very steady nerves who will understand that this is merely a precaution in case they turn out to be dangerous when they grow more powerful. But maybe China (like India or America) is run by ordinary people who have great difficulty in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, in which case they may see the Indian-US alliance as a grave threat.

Indians take a hard line on this, pointing out that it is actually India that has been “contained” by China for decades. China gives nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan, it maintains close ties with the Burmese military regime, and it supplies Chinese arms practically free to all of India’s other neighbours — all with the goal of pinning India to its own South Asian region and preventing it from playing a wider role in Asia. It largely succeeded until recently, but now it’s Beijing’s turn to have to be grown-up about things. Tough.

India has behaved quite responsibly over the years, so you can understand why Indians are impatient with such worries. But the US Congress, fixated by the non-proliferation issue, is sleep-walking into a de facto alliance that may end up drawing America and all of Asia into a decades-long strategic confrontation without ever really debating that larger question. Since the ten-year military agreement is not a formal alliance, it will never come before Congress, so this is the only chance.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“US anti-proliferation…field”; and “Indians…Tough”)