India comes to this agreement from a position of profound disagreement with the international nuclear regime. Many Indians have called it “nuclear apartheid.” The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) awards nuclear status to the five powers that tested before 1970. India could have done so, but chose not to. The treaty negotiators sought to exploit Indian restraint and place it in a position of permanent disadvantage. India was extremely poor at that time but China was worse off, yet it tested in 1964 and was rewarded by the terms of the treaty. All other nuclear-capable states at the time were allied with nuclear powers. India has refused to sign the NPT and later the CTBT. The nuclear powers retaliated by restricting India’s access to nuclear supplies and technology. The agreement between Singh and Bush is a major break in the wall of the nuclear club, and thus a milestone in India’s diplomatic progress.
The agreement is also a step in India’s quest for greater security cooperation with the United States. India’s goal is not to ally with the United States against China. Hostility with China is well worth avoiding if possible. In recent months India has sought to widen its governmental cooperation with China, and trade and investment are booming. Also, India has an established relationship with Russia, and this will continue. The world tendency under globalization is toward competitive integration. Each state seeks to expand its economic and security ties with others, seeking to move as close to the center of global network of cooperation as possible. In the past India has been relatively far from the center, but is now moving in well by tying up with America, which is of course closest to the center. This move puts pressure on others, notably China, to build relations with India to avoid loss of centrality. India will seek continued growth of cooperation with Russia, including in the field of nuclear energy.
The prime minister emphasized the theme of common democracy in his speech to Congress. Singh used “democracy” and derivative words 28 times in a speech of 3,113 words. There is good statistical evidence over centuries that liberal states rarely go to war with each other, even while being aggressive at times toward illiberal states. Scholars have examined this hypothesis from several skeptical standpoints, and it has come out well. The idea of peace among democracies is widely accepted in Washington. Although the United States has long supported dictatorship and undermined democracy in weaker states, if India can convince the United States that it belongs at the table of great powers, the theme of common democracy is likely to pay dividends.
A second theme in the speech to Congress was that of interdependence. “Peace and prosperity,” said the prime minister, “are more indivisible than ever before in human history.” This was how he set up the appeals that outsourcing should continue and the West should press Pakistan on anti-Indian terrorist organizations. The validity of his argument on terrorism is sinking in slowly. The London bombers helped send the message home.
In an interview with the Washington Post, the prime minister made statements about Iran of a significantly different tone than what Indian officials have said before. He explicitly joined in the international pressure on Iran to avoid building and testing nuclear bombs. He spoke apologetically about importing gas from Iran: “We desperately need the supply of gas that Iran has.” He said the proposed gas pipeline was a risky proposition because of “all the uncertainties of the situation there in Iran.” This is not true. The pipeline is indeed risky, but because of conditions in Pakistan, not Iran. A new radical Shia-Islamist president has been elected in Iran. But so far he has not said anything against India. The relationship with Iran has been built over many years and has delivered significant benefits to India. Further, the United States has unintentionally given Iran a huge gift of influence in Iraq. When America tires of its occupation of Iraq a great Shia bloc will emerge containing Iran and most of the people, land, and oil of Iraq. India would do well to keep up its friendship with Iran. Even if India joins the widespread diplomatic consensus against nuclear proliferation by Iran, Singh’s broader comments about Iran seem ill-considered.
The Bush administration has concluded that the current unipolar world order is eroding, and is maneuvering for greatest American advantage in the order to come. America is also playing the competitive integration game, striving to maintain centrality as China wedges itself in. Attacking Iraq has proved to be a setback in the competitive integration game, and building ties to India is also a way to make up some of the lost centrality. When announcing the F-16 sale to Pakistan, U.S. officials said they would help India become a great power. This agreement between Singh and Bush is evidence that the administration is convinced that America is better off with a more powerful India. The rise of China and the stagnation of others would restore a world of two superpowers. Bush prefers a world where America is the first among great powers, if no longer the sole superpower. In this sense a rising India serves as America’s counterweight to a rising China.
Some deterioration of America’s security relations with China is taking place. In July China tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Currently, an American first strike has a fair chance of destroying China’s capacity to strike America. The eventual deployment of even small numbers of submarine-launched missiles would eliminate that chance since submarines are nearly impossible to find in the open ocean. A few days after the missile test, a Chinese general told reporters that, in his “personal opinion,” if America tried to protect Taiwan from an attack by Beijing, China would destroy “hundreds of cities” in America and prepare for the destruction of “all cities east of Xian,” which would be the great majority of Chinese cities. The civilian leadership has disavowed the general’s comments, but has not dismissed him. These two events show that Taiwan, not Kashmir, is the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint. India itself has steered clear of the Taiwan issue. Nonetheless, the U.S.-China tension does mean that the United States needs more friends.
The U.S. political scene is marked by a divergence between those who believe the world has not changed and those who believe it has. A section of liberals is in the former camp, and the Bush coalition is in the latter. Bush and friends are profoundly wrong about Iraq, but they are right about India. Preliminary indications are that the pro-India camp is in the majority in Congress, if not in editorial offices. The non-proliferationists argue it is unfair to other states to make an exception for India. The answer is that the new accord makes the regime less unfair than it was before. States that have signed the NPT have gained certain benefits and remain bound by its obligations. India was not in a position to sign on due to its unique geopolitical circumstances. The NPT negotiations, and some of the Nuclear Suppliers Group were disproportionately targeted at India. These have been meant to pressure a responsible nuclear custodian containing a sixth of humanity to accept an inferior right to security. A move away from this approach is a step toward fairer global governance.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.