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Passage of US-India nuclear deal delicately poised

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New Delhi, Apr 11 (UNI) The historic Delhi agreement reached between US President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 2 regarding bilateral civilian nuclear co-operation needs the concurrence of the US legislature before this can be implemented.

The US nuclear non-proliferation laws on the subject (1978) need to be suitably amended so that an exception is made for India.

Hence the US administration led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been presenting the case, as it were, to their legislators.

On April 5, Ms. Rice made a very comprehensive and persuasive appeal to the US Senate wherein she pointed out that the world in the early 21st century has changed in a very fundamental manner.

Hence the mind-sets and policy tenets of the Cold War had to be set aside, she added. In such a context, the Bush initiative was designed to advance the strategic interests of the US and India even while addressing long term global issues such as energy and environmental security.

Specific to the anxiety expressed both in the US and India (for completely different reasons) about the implications of the deal for India's strategic/nuclear weapons programme, Ms Rice made an observation to the US Senate that merits full quotation: "First, I must address the belief that somehow this initiative could have been used to force India to accept a unilateral freeze or cap on its nuclear arsenal. The US has achieved an important strategic objective by obtaining India's commitment to work toward a multilateral Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. But India's plans and politics must take into account regional realities. No one can credibly assert that India would accept an arms control agreement that did not include the other key countries, namely China and Pakistan. Therefore trying to use American leverage to get India to make this unilateral move is an idea that is certain to fail. It is a poison pill to kill any possibility for change." Clearly, the Bush administration has no intention of enforcing a cap or a freeze on India's nuclear deterrent and this has been reiterated by Ms Rice. The reference to "regional realities" is important and the specific mention of China and Pakistan would suggest that the US administration is cognisant of the complexities that are part of the Southern Asian nuclear domain.

However, even as the US Secretary of State was explaining these issues to the Senate, on April 7, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, who was addressing a business audience in Delhi, stated that as in the past, Washington would continue to push India to "further define its minimum credible deterrent and we continue that today. We understand the complexity of this task having spent 40 years in discussions with the former Soviet Union over our nuclear weapons programmes. We also understand that such discussions are complicated by China's intentions and by Iran's energetic pursuit of technologies that underlie nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we see this as an absolutely necessary step toward decreasing tensions in Asia." This assertion by Mr Boucher led to a predictable sense of dismay in Delhi and the Ministry of External Affairs clarified that any definition of India's deterrent would be a purely domestic issue and had no reference to the bilateral dialogue with the US. Hopefully, Ms Rice's statement to the US Senate will help to set at rest wider Indian anxieties on this score but nonetheless, these developments warrant some scrutiny and illumination at this stage for their deeper implications.

Purely in terms of the appropriate semantic-India is doctrinally committed to acquiring a 'credible minimum deterrent' and the sequence of words is vital. India must first attain what is deemed as 'credible' before getting down to determining what is the quantitative minimum. And alas, the whole concept of deterrence based on the qualitative aspect of 'credibility' and the quantification of minimum numbers is a dynamic entity.

Nuclear deterrence based on the Cold War experience is a function of technological capabilities that are derived from the potency of the warhead, its explosive reliability, the range and accuracy of the delivery system, the command and control associated with the nuclear arsenal, its survivability and finally the strategic culture and the perspicacity of the incumbent leadership that is husbanding the nuclear arsenals of the states involved in the deterrence matrix.

India, Pakistan and China are all part of the Southern Asian nuclear matrix and are differently poised on the deterrence curve.

It may not be invalid to suggest that an Asian form of post Cold war deterrence practice is still evolving. The need for these three nations to arrive at some degree of consensual mutuality about their nuclear capabilities and deterrence profile whereby they are able to accept each other's asymmetry is imperative - but the sheer desirability of such an exigency does not make it any easier to achieve. To that extent the statements of both Ms Rice and Mr Boucher have to be seen in totality.

Doctrinally, India is also wedded to 'no-first-use' (NFU) and this is a very distinctive posture that only China among the other NPT nuclear weapon states subscribes to - though with some caveats.

India's deterrence is predicated on a massive 'retaliatory' (and not second) strike and this is the signal for any putative adversary.

Axiomatically, any nation that has a NFU policy must have a very high degree of survivable, retaliatory capability that is effectively 'massive'. These are some of the complex issues that India has been engaged in since the nuclear tests of May 1998 and eight years down the deterrence road, India it may be averred is still a 'reluctant' nuclear power.

This is where the determinant of strategic culture becomes relevant. Nuclear weapons and missiles cannot be seen in isolation for their stabilising or de-stabilising impact minus the cultural factor. For instance, the global community was not particularly excised or agitated by the Saudi acquisition of CSS-2 ballistic missiles (2500-3000 km range) in 1987 but the Iraqi inventory of the more rudimentary Scud missile (250-300 km range) caused immense turbulence noted in the 1991 War for Kuwait.

India has a DNA of reticence, restraint and responsibility when it comes to nuclear weapons and the leadership has shown little intent to use this capability to embark on any kind of adventurism or revisionism to alter the existing strategic status quo.

These are qualities that the global community in the main and the Bush team in particular have noted - and hence the exception for India.

However, India is still committed to nuclear restraint and ultimate global disarmament and this will be the more abiding challenge for India in the years ahead - after the current deal is (successfully) negotiated through the US legislature and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In the first instance, India will have to work towards credible credibility and then define the minimum contours of such a concept even as it enters into some kind of a dialogue with Pakistan and China. Ethical realism has been the leit motif of India's nuclear posture since 1974 and Ms Rice's testimony to the US legislature is to be viewed through this filter.

(Cmde C Uday Bhaskar is the Deputy Director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.) UNI XC NK DS1523

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