Inside Story

How the world warmed to a nuclear India

India has pursued two curiously contradictory approaches to nuclear proliferation since independence, writes Kate Sullivan

Kate Sullivan 3 May 2012 2820 words

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister (pictured above with President John F. Kennedy in Washington in 1961), was an early proponent of halting nuclear tests. US Embassy New Delhi

ON 19 APRIL this year, the day India launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner faced a barrage of questions from journalists. The successful test flight of Agni V had exploded into the headlines that day, and Toner’s interrogators demanded to know what it meant for the world. His response was curious. He didn’t dwell on the fact that Agni V was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for distances of up to 5000 kilometres. He omitted to mention that the missile put major Chinese cities within striking distance of Indian nuclear weapons. He didn’t speculate about India’s military aims and intentions. Instead, he did something quite baffling: he launched into praise. India, he said, had been “very much engaged in the community and nonproliferation issues,” had attended nuclear security summits, and could demonstrate a “solid nonproliferation record.”

The contrast with the alarm and condemnation triggered by North Korea’s failed rocket launch less than a week earlier was striking. India’s testing of a nuclear-capable long-range missile had given its jubilant leadership two causes for celebration. Agni V not only delivered a world-class ranking among the handful of states with ICBM technology, it also provided clear evidence of a critical diplomatic triumph – evidence that emerged more slowly and subtly than the deafening roar of the launch.

India had won tacit US support for its nuclear missile program.

THE launch of India’s first ICBM, and the subdued and oblique response of the United States, is only the latest chapter in India’s perplexing nuclear history. In 1998, when India tested nuclear weapons and became an overtly nuclear-armed state, the widespread condemnation and sanctions placed it firmly in the category of nuclear pariah. Yet Indian fortunes shifted not long after. Relations with Washington warmed, and seemingly overnight New Delhi received unprecedented rights to civil nuclear trade with the United States. By 2008 a civil nuclear agreement was in force between the two countries, and India had been granted significant trading allowances by key non-proliferation institutions. India had turned into a nuclear friend. As the journalist Ravi Nessman commented on the day of the Agni V test, “The world has grown to accept India as a responsible and stable nuclear power.”

A historical perspective can often shed light on puzzles like this one. But the further you look back in time the more paradoxical India’s promotion to privileged nuclear partner of the United States appears. In 1968, India refused to become a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. Its key complaint was that the treaty was discriminatory, since it permitted countries that had tested nuclear weapons before 1 January 1967 – the so-called Nuclear Weapons States – to retain them, even as it foreclosed the nuclear option to everyone else. But India was equally keen to defend its legal right to develop and test nuclear weapons. In 1974 it exercised this right in defiance of the community, and conducted a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” which New Delhi claimed was not a weapon. The reading of the test was different, and the United States led the way in consolidating global non-proliferation laws and barring India from multilateral trade in a range of sensitive technologies, including nuclear ones.

The campaign against “nuclear India” continued. Well into the 1990s, any kind of nuclear trade or collaboration between India and the global nuclear community was unthinkable. And when New Delhi startled the world with its tests in 1998, the United States emerged as one of its most vociferous critics. Washington’s angry response reverberated far and wide: in the G8, which blocked assistance to India from financial institutions, and in the UN Security Council, which made it clear that India, tests or no tests, would be denied formal NPT recognition as a Nuclear Weapons State, even if it signed.

For decades, it seemed, India had existed firmly outside the written and unwritten rules of the global nuclear game, a game largely devised, played and refereed by the United States. The civil nuclear agreement concluded between Washington and New Delhi a decade after India’s tests was exceptional not simply because it symbolised a turning point in a relationship that had long been hostile. In giving India the right to civil nuclear trade, the United States now explicitly recognised India as a “responsible nuclear state” in the global nuclear game, which was tantamount to both picking it for the team, and letting it onto the pitch.

Washington aimed to ensure that New Delhi would acquire “the same benefits and advantages” as other states with “advanced nuclear technology,” effectively granting it a similar status to the Nuclear Weapons States. But perhaps the most striking part of the deal was that India had still not signed the NPT, ratified a test ban treaty or agreed to any other significant constraints on its nuclear weapons program. It was being offered civil nuclear trade and technology with no real guarantee that its weapons program wouldn’t indirectly benefit. The kinds of legal exceptions granted to India outside the NPT were unprecedented. Not only was India being invited to play, but a very special set of rules was being created to accommodate it.

EXPLAINING the acceptance of a nuclear India requires a much closer look at India’s complex nuclear past, or more precisely, the two curiously contradictory histories that the Indian state has interwoven since independence. While the usual questions asked about India’s pathway to the bomb are concerned with why India went nuclear and tested its weapons when it did, the equally compelling story of why India did not test for so many years is seldom explored.

The story begins soon after independence in 1947, when the country’s early leaders were ardent advocates of nuclear disarmament. Both the first UN document to suggest halting nuclear tests and the first study of the consequences of nuclear weapon use were initiatives of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, in the mid-1950s. Indian diplomats played a significant role in drawing up the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibited countries from testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water, but not underground. India was the fourth signatory after the top nuclear powers of the time, the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain.

From India’s vantage point, success at global disarmament activism could deliver a number of rewards. Disarmament promised a reduction in global tensions and the removal of the danger of nuclear war. Developing countries such as India would be able to devote resources to economic development rather than to a costly arms race. But disarmament would only be feasible if the major powers with nuclear weapons could be coaxed into letting them go. In the context of the Cold War, a successful role for India in persuading the world’s most powerful enemies to disarm would bring an enormous boost to India’s prestige. Championing disarmament was not only about security, it was about status.

India’s campaigns continued for decades. In global forums, Indian diplomats pushed again and again for the world to renounce nuclear weapons. At the same time, Indian scientists were developing ever more sophisticated atomic energy technology, and with it, a nuclear weapons capability. While the twin efforts at disarmament and nuclear development appeared contradictory, they made perfect sense. For an emerging post-colonial state that saw sophisticated technology as an important proving ground, mastering the atom was a way of demonstrating modern scientific and technological credentials, both at home and to the world. The official line was that the development of nuclear capabilities needn’t be at odds with India’s disarmament aims. India could develop nuclear material and expertise but was restrained enough not to turn it into usable weapons. Indeed, in their pro-disarmament speeches, Indian diplomats foregrounded this uniquely principled approach to the atom as something the rest of the world could observe and learn from.

Once a moral stance on the nuclear issue had been adopted, it was difficult to back away from. India’s adherence to principle in part explains why it didn’t test nuclear weapons for nearly a quarter of a century, despite being well able to do so. Moreover, the repeating refrain of nuclear restraint meant that New Delhi’s nuclear policy implicitly followed many of the rules of the global nuclear game, even though India had not signed the NPT. Though in possession of nuclear know-how, India did not test between 1974 and 1998, and it did not export that know-how to others. Up until 1998, India was building a record of restrained nuclear behaviour and a pro-peace image that would one day prove crucial in facilitating a positive reading of its nuclear past.

A number of motives help explain why India suddenly decided to break the pattern in 1998. Certainly, the existence of nuclear threats, overt and covert, from China and Pakistan and pressure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the mid-1990s were factors. Domestic politics, in the form of a strategically minded Hindu nationalist leadership hoping to harden India’s “soft” image, was another. But it was also clear from the jubilant response of the Indian urban public to the first nuclear tests in May 1998 that the bomb had enormous domestic value as a symbol of global prestige. Overnight it placed India on the same level as a select club of nuclear-armed states, at the top of the global hierarchy.

Perhaps more interesting than the “why?” of India’s tests however, is the question of how India managed to make its new position mesh with its longstanding claims to nuclear responsibility and restraint. In the wake of the tests New Delhi was at pains to reassure: India had peaceful intentions, would voluntarily abstain from further nuclear testing, would limit itself to the minimum number of weapons needed for a credible nuclear deterrent, and would never be the first to use those weapons. Above all, it was claimed, India had an excellent track record of non-proliferation, never having sold or traded its nuclear secrets or technologies with others.

Although India’s curious mix of demonstrations of strength and declarations of restraint in 1998 puzzled and frustrated onlookers, the swiftly painted portrait of a principled, responsible nuclear power was ultimately persuasive beyond India’s borders. In 2007, as Washington worked together with New Delhi to formulate the terms of the civil nuclear deal, a key interlocutor for the United States, R. Nicholas Burns, described India as “a largely responsible steward of its nuclear material” that “had played by the rules of a system to which it did not belong.” India’s nuclear self-narrative had suddenly emerged in the unlikeliest of places: official US policy discourse.

CERTAINLY, there are several drivers behind the blossoming friendship between the United States and India. Since India’s economy began to gain momentum from the early 1990s, the benefits of closer economic engagement have weighed heavily in US calculations. US leaders have also begun to appreciate the potential of India’s growing influence in Asia, possibly as a balance to that of China. Moreover, the US-India relationship has been helped by India’s neat fit into the category of a “friendly” democracy and its role as a valuable global partner in key areas such as counter-terrorism. As former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal argued just days after the launch of Agni V, the absence of American disapproval over the test suggests that India’s missile program is broadly in line with US interests. Yet interests cannot explain everything. They cannot explain why India merits a different kind of thinking when it comes to the highly sensitive area of nuclear cooperation, especially given New Delhi’s continued refusal to sign the NPT. Above all, they cannot explain how the United States has come to trust India with the bomb.

The key difference between India and North Korea, or India and Iran, is that New Delhi has persistently and successfully cultivated an image as a responsible nuclear power. The credibility of this image would have been unthinkable without the great Indian diplomatic resource of decades of “restrained” behaviour and principled policy discourse. Put differently, by drawing on its complex nuclear history, India has worked at persuading the United States that its nuclear intentions are benign.

Current research as part of a larger UK-based project on The Challenges to Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds is exploring exactly how this trusting relationship with the United States came about. It shows how trust was built both interpersonally within high-level negotiations between senior US and Indian officials, and between powerful political, business and civil-society communities in both countries. Intensified trade linkages, Track II (or informal) diplomacy and the efforts of US-based Indian diaspora groups all contributed to knitting the two leaderships closer together. Teaching and learning about India’s nuclear past was a central part of this broad-based engagement. Less than a decade after the 1998 tests, the exceptional nuclear deal between India and the United States signalled that India had drawn resourcefully on its history to complete the journey from nuclear rogue to nuclear partner.

Much of the wider community, too, has accepted the line that India is a responsible nuclear power. The original civil nuclear agreement with the United States had the support of Russia, France and Britain. In September 2008, the forty-five members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group reached a consensus and backed their assessment of India’s nuclear trustworthiness by granting exceptional trading privileges. These privileges meant that India became the first nuclear-armed state outside the NPT permitted to engage in nuclear commerce with the rest of the world. Even the Australian government softened its line when it agreed to the sale of uranium to India in December 2011.

China and Pakistan, naturally, remain a resistant barrier to the spread of nuclear goodwill towards India. As India’s historic rivals in Asia, this is hardly surprising. Both are potential targets of India’s nuclear weapons and missiles. An early official justification for India’s 1998 nuclear tests was that India perceived a nuclear threat from both countries, although subsequent statements aimed to reassure the world that India would never play the role of aggressor in a nuclear exchange. India’s official line on the Agni V test was that the missile was “not any country-specific.” Yet reading between the lines, many have inferred that strategic Chinese cities are potential targets within its extended range. The striking distance of previous versions of the Agni missile covered the territory of Pakistan.

China, in particular, has voiced disapproval over the concessions granted to India outside the NPT. The September 2008 meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which granted India privileged trading rights, faced strong opposition from China, but US pressure finally tipped the balance of the group towards consensus. Increasingly, Beijing appears to be treading carefully when it comes to official commentary on India’s nuclear-related activities. It is as eager as India to project and maintain an image as responsible emerging power. This helps to explain the official response to the Agni V test, in which the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin stated that India and China were “not competitors but partners.” Different sentiments appear to simmer within, however. China’s influential tabloid, Global Times, ominously warned that “India should not overestimate its strength” and would not profit “from being arrogant during disputes with China.”

Pakistan, for its part, appeared to answer to Agni V with a missile test of its own. The shorter range but newly upgraded Hatf IV Shaheen 1A ballistic missile was launched on 25 April amidst Pakistani claims that it was “not a direct response to Agni V.” Whether or not Pakistan’s missile was an exercise in military posturing, it was undertaken with an appropriate measure of responsibility. Before Shaheen 1A took to the skies, Pakistan had taken care to inform India of its plan to test.

India’s successful launch of Agni V has underscored the increasingly free hand it has won since 1998 over its own nuclear destiny. The test signalled India’s entry into an elite club of only six other states with ICBM capabilities. But more significantly, it reaffirmed the success of a recent Indian diplomatic project. India has earned a different kind of global prestige through the broad-based acceptance of its status as a responsible nuclear power. When it comes to testing nuclear missiles, it pays first to make friends in high places. •