Stagecraft & Statecraft | Brahma Chellaney
While the Indian foreign minister has claimed "all concerns of India have been reflected and adequately addressed" in the just-concluded bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act (AEC), Washington has asserted that the accord safeguards US interests "from a variety of different perspectives." In public comments and background briefings, the two governments have zealously sought to put their own spin. The true picture would be known once they unwrap the still-secret text. New Delhi in particular appears anxious to soften public opinion at home before releasing the fine print.
Two important points, however, have already been admitted by both sides - that the so-called 123 agreement expressly states that nuclear cooperation would be governed by "national laws" of the two parties; and that its text is within the parameters set by the India-specific, conditions-laden Hyde Act. As US undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns has bragged, "We're very satisfied because we know the agreement is well within the bounds of the Hyde Act."
In fact, US officials have gone to the extent of saying that the concessions they made in the fine print are more in the form of semantic guile than in substance, designed to help India address critics at home and seal the accord. The Washington Times, close to the White House, has quoted administration and congressional sources as saying that "some language is deliberately vague to help both sides save face" and that the text was "deliberately written in a way that can be interpreted differently by the two sides."
In other words, both sides can claim success, while in reality the cooperation would be conditioned by the Hyde Act, euphemistically referred to in the text as the applicability of "national laws." That is exactly what this columnist had warned in a two-part article last May 14-15 - that if the 123 agreement were to be in consonance with the Hyde Act and yet not rub salt on Indian wounds, there was only one way out: semantic subterfuge in the fine print. The reluctance to release the text more than a week after the agreement was concluded is a sign that there have been only semantic compromises on key issues. And US officials are saying so.
For India, this represents a major climbdown: having told Parliament that the Hyde Act contained provisions that were either "prescriptive" in ways incompatible with the July 18, 2005 joint statement or "extraneous" to engagement "between friends," New Delhi has come round to accepting cooperation with the US on the basis of the onerous and grating conditions in the US legislation. Indeed, in defining India's bottom line in Parliament last August 17, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had admitted, "We have concerns over both the House and Senate versions of the Bill."
However, once the US legislative process was completed without meeting most of the PM's benchmarks, New Delhi readily entered the next stage - negotiations over a 123 agreement - by pretending that Dr Singh's assurances to Parliament could be addressed in that process. That was just a charade to buy political space, given that India's deal-related commitments by then had already been expanded and turned into immutable legal obligations through US domestic law.
New Delhi was aware that even if the 123 agreement did not incorporate the controversial conditions of the Hyde Act, it would hardly free India from their obligations. America has always maintained that because such a bilateral agreement is a requirement not under international law but under US law, it cannot supersede American law. Washington has only reinforced its legal position by incorporating in the 123-agreement text the primacy of "national laws."
New Delhi indeed knows from its bitter Tarapur experience that a 123 agreement has little sanctity in international law. The earlier Indo-US 123 accord, signed in 1963, was abandoned by Washington in 1978 - four years after the first Indian nuclear test - simply by enacting a new domestic law that retroactively overrode the bilateral pact. That broke with impunity a guarantee to supply "timely" fuel "as needed" for the US-built Tarapur plant.
Now, New Delhi claims it has secured assured fuel supply in the new 123 agreement, and that in the event of any disruption, the US would find an alternative source. But US officials are already disputing that. The Washington Times has quoted officials as saying "the language does not commit them to do anything specific. Rather, if there is an interruption because of technical or logistical difficulties, they will try to do what is appropriate." That is in line with the Hyde Act which says assured fuel supply covers only disruption due to "market failures or similar reasons," not sanctions arising from India's non-compliance with US-imposed conditions.
More broadly, it should not be forgotten that only after India has complied with all the Hyde Act's preconditions that the US Congress would take up the final deal for approval.
And although the Hyde Act provides for an
up-or-down vote on a joint resolution - a practice that does not permit any amendment - the legislation's own explanatory statement reserves the right for Congress to "pass a joint resolution of approval with conditions" by giving up "the expedited procedures offered by Sections 123 and 130 of the AEA." That is exactly what happened with the US nuclear deal with China, when Congress attached three conditions to its 1985 joint resolution of approval, resulting in a nearly 13-year hold.
But before the final Indo-US deal can go before Congress, it has to secure approval from the 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency board and the 45-state Nuclear Suppliers' Group. Even in the best-case scenario, with all the remaining hurdles being crossed, the US will perpetually hang the threat of re-imposition of civil nuclear sanctions to enforce India's compliance with the Hyde Act's post-implementation conditions.
New Delhi is itching to enter into a new 123 agreement without resolving the outstanding issues from the earlier 123 accord. The Tarapur spent fuel has been accumulating for 36 years. Washington has neither compensated New Delhi for the large costs it continues to incur to store the highly radioactive spent fuel nor allowed India to reprocess it by accepting that IAEA safeguards can be effectively applied at the PREFRE facility specially built for this purpose.
While the PM had pledged to secure the removal of "restrictions on all aspects of cooperation," including "reprocessing spent fuel," the US, under the new 123 accord, has conceded only a theoretical right to India to reprocess, with the practical right to be worked out in negotiations with the US in the future. India would build a new reprocessing facility with safeguards involving US participation. This not only prolongs the Tarapur imbroglio but also raises a larger question: why acquiesce to the US having a political say on reprocessing when the issue of safeguards involves only the IAEA?
Take another issue - a perpetual nuclear test ban on India. Through the means of a domestic law, America today seeks to implicitly bind India to an international pact whose ratification the US Senate rejected in 1999 - the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Such a test ban, as both sides have admitted, cannot be, and has not been, diluted by the 123 agreement. Even the US "right to return" remains untouched. However, as the Washington Times puts it, "to help New Delhi save face domestically, the administration agreed to consult with the Indian government before taking any action in response to a test, officials said. The Indians presented that language as a major US concession, but US officials said consultations do not mean much in practice."
New Delhi should be fully cognisant of what it is getting into. It would be effectively embracing CTBT-plus obligations that no nation has done. Although the PM had pledged that India is "not prepared to go beyond a unilateral voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing," the Hyde Act seeks to enforce a tight, irrevocable test prohibition against India by actually going beyond the existing provisions of US law, which empower the President to continue exports on strategic grounds despite a test. By decreeing that the waiver for India will automatically terminate with any Indian test, the Hyde Act itself admits that it goes "beyond Section 129" of AEC.
Besides seeking "full and immediate use of US rights to demand the return of all nuclear-related items … if India were to test," the Act goes beyond even the CTBT by specifying in technical terms what is prohibited for India. In the CTBT negotiations, the US had successfully opposed an Article I definition of a "nuclear explosion" to leave open loopholes for "permissible activities" of the type it carries out at its Nevada test site. While refusing to accede to the CTBT itself, the US would be enforcing CTBT-plus obligations on India. Once India has imported power reactors worth billions of dollars, the Hyde Act will effectively bear it down.
Against this background, the debate on the 123 agreement needs to be conducted in a sober, realistic way, not through spin and hoopla. By papering over fundamental differences, the deal could engender serious Indo-US discord in the years ahead. That danger is already manifest from the conflicting analysis of the still-secret 123 agreement by official briefers. One US congressional official is quoted as saying, "The way the Indians are reading it is not correct from the administration's point of view."
Too often in its independent history, India has rushed to believe what it wanted to believe, only to cry betrayal later.