Twenty Years Later: nuclear tests jump-started a new era in U.S.-India relations

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President George W. Bush signs the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement ( Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006) as lawmakers and administration officials including from left, Congressmen Joe Crowley, D-NY, Elliot Engel, D-NY, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, right, and India’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ronen Sen, second from right, and late Congressman Henry Hyde, R-Illinois, look on.

When India formally crashed the elitist nuclear club with its five very public nuclear tests starting May 11, 1998, it was a turning point in U.S.-India relations, one where eventually, Washington was forced, kicking and screaming, to drop its deep-state Cold War attitudes towards that country, and end up backing its de facto nuclear weapons power status. (See text of Indian government’s May 11, 1998 note explaining its position on the nuclear fusion and fission tests).

Karl Inderfurth, the then assistant secretary of state for South Asia, described the nuclear tests as “a seismic event in more ways than one!” (Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training, July 2014, India and Pakistan on the Brink: The 1998 Nuclear Tests)

Twenty years later, through the tenure of various governments in India and the U.S., including the current one led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the relationship has only grown, putting into relief the power that accompanies nuclear weapons status.

Apart from government officials and policymakers, the other key player in the unfolding story has been the Indian-American community. It lobbied anti-India elements in the U.S. Congress angered over the Indian nuclear tests in 1998; and later it lobbied to defeat “killer” amendments on Capitol Hill in 2006 against the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement which can be seen partly as the culmination of the nuclear tests.

Experts differ on how much the nuclear tests determined the change in U.S. policy toward India, though they recognize its historic significance.

“I remember that well – the ‘What to do about India’ group put together by Strobe Talbott (then deputy secretary of state) after the nuclear tests, which I was part of,” recalls Walter Andersen, then a senior State Department official and now director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Members of the Indian-American community who were present during the signing of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, pose for a photo at the White House. Among them is Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times, 2nd from left.

The 14 meetings between Talbott and India’s then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh between June 1998 and 2000, immediately following the nuclear tests, “was meant to be a confidence-building measure and an early sign of developing relationship between U.S. and India,” Andersen told News India Times.

“I don’t think it was the (nuclear) tests so much as what followed the tests,” that had a significant effect on U.S.- India relations, contends Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., “What followed was a brazen attempt by a Pakistani military leader to change the equation in Kashmir, and the continued allegiance to jihadi groups that exercise violence in India,” Krepon told News India Times.

Yet, in a few years time, following upon the 1998 tests which jump started the historic Talbott-Singh ‘strategic dialogue’ Washington ended up with a de-facto recognition of India as part of the elite nuclear weapons club. (see Strobe Talbott: Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb).

The Talbott-Singh dialogue dovetailed nicely with the geo-strategic vision of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and her boss President George W. Bush, to align with India and contain China.

The geo-strategic vision led to the path-breaking announcement July 18, 2005 by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George Bush making the Civilian Nuclear Agreement,  a reality. On December 18, 2006, after many hurdles in Congress, including the ‘killer’ amendments from both sides of the aisle, President Bush signed the Hyde Act.

Through all this controversy, and with U.S. backing, India secured the support of the other members of the elite nuclear club (minus China). The Nuclear Suppliers Group (minus China), and nuclear fissile materials treaty signatories, in a display of confidence in India’s responsible handling of nuclear weapons capability, quite in contrast to reigning suspicions about Pakistan’s record of allegedly selling nuclear weapons-technology to rogue regimes.

President George W. Bush with Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times.

The Indian-American Effect

The 1998 furor in Congress over India’s nuclear tests was tempered also by the Indian-American community’s concerted effort to make a pro-India case on Capitol Hill.

The community lobbied the Caucus for India and Indian-Americans on the Hill, to go easy on India. A clear indication that Indian-American lobbying in Congress had an effect, Dean Rust, director of the Nuclear Proliferation Bureau in the State Department at that time, says, “… after six months or so the furor over the tests died down, and there was considerable pressure from the Congressional Indian caucus, State regional officials, and South Asian NGO’s to relax the sanctions.” (Italics mine)

The community was also critical in building support for the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement of 2006, which passed despite differences on Capitol Hill.

“The Indian-American community played an essential role in building support for the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement,” said Congressman Joe Crowley in an email responding to News India Times’ query. “They made the point, and I agreed, that it was more important for the United States and India to be working together than working apart.”

“The community also sustained United States support over time, which was important because this was a complicated deal involving a number of steps both domestically and internationally,” Crowley went on to emphasize.

“… an increasingly professional and well-funded “India lobby” among Indian-Americans was critical in pressing members of Congress to support the nuclear agreement,” argued Jason Kirk, associate professor at Elon University, in his paper, ‘Indian-Americans and the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement: Consolidation of an Ethnic Lobby?’ published May 15, 2008.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi with Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh.

The Economic Factor

India’s economic growth before and after the nuclear tests also added to the U.S.-India engagement. The high growth rate, the attractive market, was earning it titles like “Emerging (regional/global) Power.” Add to that, divisions within the U.S. administration regarding sanctions worked in India’s favor.

Rust notes in his account that “…of course the Commerce Department didn’t want this event (nuclear blasts and subsequent sanctions) to have a substantial impact on U.S.-Indian trade.” (July 2014 article in the Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training). Rust goes on to say, “They (Commerce Department) argued: “Yes, we would have preferred they not acquire nuclear weapons, but both countries (U.S.-India) are friends. The horse is out of the barn; they’re not going back. So what good is it to impose comprehensive sanctions, particularly since we will just lose trade opportunities to other countries.”

Which brings us to the present where a strong nationalist agenda articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has steered and exponentially grown U.S.-India bilateral cooperation through both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Not least has been Washington’s rising and deepening concern over China’s stepped up machinations in the South China Sea and dominance in the Indo-Pacific region, which synergized with Modi’s Look East policy to close the circle that began to be built with the 1998 nuclear tests, conducted under the leadership of the earlier Bharatiya Janata Party government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

To what extent did the nuclear tests usher in a new era in U.S.-India relations remains a matter of conjecture.

“Meetings like the ones between Talbott and Jaswant Singh would not have happened before the nuclear tests,” Andersen emphasized, “The blasts energized the meetings.”

For Krepon India’s nuclear tests raise the question of whether nuclear weapons improved anyone’s security in the Subcontinent or the world at large including the United States. “Having nuclear weapons you cannot use on a battlefield does not enhance your security,” says Krepon, when the battlefield with Pakistan involves conventional weapons and the China problem revolves around encroachment. Yet, having the bomb, he concedes, gives India the strategic autonomy it has always guarded so strenuously.

Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (L) with Defence Minister George Fernandes wave to soldiers at the Buddha Site, where Indian nuclear tests were carried out in 1998. Two nuclear tests were carried out May 13. (Reuters)
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