A controversial US-India nuclear energy deal is expected to face a stiff challenge later this week from countries that adamantly oppose nuclear proliferation.
The deal, finalized by Washington and New Delhi in August 2007, would lift a 34-year embargo on the transfer of nuclear material to India, thereby allowing it access to foreign nuclear technology and supplies. The deal is seen as a strategic move on the part of the United States to cement relations with its booming democratic partner in Asia and counterbalance China's rise.
But critics say the deal will roll back decades of efforts to limit the global spread of nuclear materials and create a dangerous precedent for other would-be nuclear powers such as Iran.
Despite fierce lobbying by the US and India to push the deal through, several holdouts – including New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, and Norway – could still scuttle the plan. Those countries are members of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which meets in Vienna on Thursday and must reach consensus on the deal for it to pass.
If the group does approve the plan, it will then pass to the US Congress for final approval later this year.
The Times of India quoted the New Zealand minister for disarmament and arms control, Phil Goff, as saying his country "has not arrived at a final position" on whether to approve the deal, but "like a number of countries, we do have reservations." In an interview with the paper he said:
"New Zealand, as a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, puts a priority on a robust nuclear non-proliferation regime. India is one of only three countries that remain outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.... We don't agree with either India's testing of nuclear weapons or its continued possession of those weapons."
India says it wants to implement the deal to help meet rapidly growing energy needs with more nuclear power. But critics say imports could also be used to ramp up its nuclear weapons program, thereby accelerating an atomic arms race with neighboring rival Pakistan.
Diplomats have said that several NSG nations are unlikely to approve an exemption unless it makes clear certain events – such as India testing a nuclear bomb or not allowing inspections at its nuclear facilities – would trigger a review.
According to Agence France-Presse, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said that it was "biased to view the deal as going against nuclear non-proliferation efforts," and pointed out that it would give India access to international nuclear technology after being shut out for refusing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Japan had previously been a major holdout and was pressing India to sign the NPT.
The Wall Street Journal noted one reason for such wide-ranging support: Energy companies from those countries stand to reap huge profits from building reactors and other nuclear infrastructure for India.
Earlier this year, before the international community became involved, the deal triggered a political crisis in India. Opposition members of the communist party and others argued that the deal drew India too close to the US. The Indian government easily survived a confidence vote over the issue in July, but rifts remain.
In a commentary piece for The Christian Science Monitor, Manjari Chatterjee Miller argued that the deep divisions within India over the deal reflected the country's lack of strategic vision, especially as compared to China.
Similarly, in an editorial in The New York Times, US Congressman Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts and Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D) of California argue against the deal because of India's "checkered" nuclear track record.
Paradoxically, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was formed in direct response to India's illegal 1974 nuclear test. Its central purpose is to ensure that no other country exploits foreign nuclear energy assistance to make a bomb, as India did. If the group accedes to President Bush's dangerous request, countries such as Iran and North Korea would certainly use the precedent to their advantage.
In a background piece on the US-India agreement, the Council on Foreign Relations noted that under the terms of the deal, India agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Association to inspect its civilian – but not military – nuclear facilities. It also agreed to continue its moratorium on nuclear testing. The piece cites proponents of the deal who argue that some international oversight over India's nuclear program is better than none. "President Bush's bilateral deal correctly recognizes that it is far better for the nonproliferation community if India works with it rather than against it," the backgrounder cites Seema Gahlaut, from the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security, as saying.