The author is former foreign secretary of India
An important bilateral discussion between India and the United States of America took place in the second week of November to review and revive technological cooperation between the two countries after a gap of nearly two-and-a-half to three years. The discussions were crucial since this was the first exercise to comprehensively review this vital aspect of bilateral relations since India’s nuclear weapons tests of May 1998. Before one comes to an assessment of this most recent of initiatives and pros- pects, it is relevant to examine technological interaction between India and the US over the years. The cooperation in this sphere, however, does not and cannot occur in a vacuum. It is necessarily dependent on the guiding political and strategic considerations in the foreign policies of both countries.
The over-arching influence on India-US relations till the late Eighties was the chemistry of the Cold War and the central point in American foreign policy was the question whether the democratic West, led by the US, could more effectively meet the objective of successfully responding to the rising expectations in developing countries, particularly in a large one like India, which also claimed the additional virtue of being a democracy. The end of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991 has in a manner reduced the centrality of the question mentioned above, as the US diplomat and scholar, Dennis Kux, asserted in the mid-Nineties: “Now that the Cold War is happily history, India has slid down the ladder of US priorities although its continuing effort to develop as a democracy does remain significant.” Kux goes on to add the significant conclusion: “One can hardly make support for democracy as a guiding principle of American foreign policy, yet ignore what happens in a democracy in a country where 860 million people live, one out of every six human being on earth [Kux wrote this in 1994].” But at the most fundamental level this remains the basic consideration in the dilemmas in US’s south Asian policies.
The way out was articulated in the draft of the US defence planning guide which was leaked to The New York Times early in 1992. The portion related to India partially read as follows: “We [the US] will seek to prevent the further development of nuclear arms race on the Indian sub-continent. In this regard we should work to have both countries, India and Pakistan, adhere to the non-proliferation treaty and to place their nuclear energy facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards. We should discourage Indian hegemonic aspirations over the other states in south Asia and on the Indian ocean. With regard to Pakistan, a constructive US-Pakistan military relationship will be an important element in our strategy to promote stable security conditions in southwest Asia and central Asia. We should therefore endeavour to rebuild our military relationship with Pakistan given the acceptable resolution of our nuclear concerns.”
Though this approach might have been modified in articulation in the final official document, the basic considerations influencing US policies as mentioned above have not altered. This is the basic orientation underpinning the US’s subcontinental policies, particularly so in respect of technological cooperation.
The history of India-US technological cooperation has been a chequered one. While on the one hand, it is the inputs from the US which initiated our space and nuclear programmes, cooperation in these spheres was always subject to US concerns about horizontal proliferation and military imbalance between India and Pakistan and in the subcontinent. There was a certain reluctance on the part of the US to assist India in developing its infrastructural industries, particularly in the steel sector, which only changed after the Russians gave this assistance and the resulting competition brought in the British and the Germans.
The 1974 underground nuclear tests by India resulted in re-imposition of technological and economic sanctions against India, slowing down bilateral cooperation. An attempt was made to remedy matters half way during the tenure of the then president, Ronald Reagan, when a memorandum of understanding for technological cooperation was signed between the US and India in 1984. This included arrangements for close cooperation in the spheres of computer technology and certain aspects of space technology for peaceful purposes. These arrangements did not take off the ground because of the Iraq-Kuwait crisis and the anxieties about horizontal proliferation in countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India.
Regimes like the missile control technology regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group agreement, the nuclear non-proliferation act of the US came into operation. Similarly, doctrines of dual-use technology, the need to prevent such technologies from falling into the hands of “rogue” or “irresponsible” states created a generally restrictive atmosphere on prospects of India-US cooperation in the spheres of sophisticated technology.
The 1998 nuclear weapons tests by India compounded the situation as far as this cooperation was concerned. The US imposed across-the-board economic and technological sanctions, putting into operation its “enhanced proliferation control initiative”. Two hundred Indian organizations or entities were put on the prohibited list under what was called a catch-all connotation. No US company or entity could trade or interact with these 200 Indian entities. Any trading arrangement was subject to export licences predicated on an a priori negative decision. Even contracts between individuals in these agencies and their US counterparts stood suspended. The more recent developments in this sphere of India-US relations commenced with the talks between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott in 1999, resulting in about 50 or 60 Indian entities being removed from the above-mentioned prohibited list. One hundred and fifty entities still remain on the list.
It was only in September 2001 that the Bush administration removed all sanctions against India and Pakistan, although certain restrictions have remained in place under the US non-proliferation act and related congressional stipulations. Now only 24 entities remain on the restrictive list. These entities are India’s nuclear facilities which are not under IAEA safeguards, the Defence and Research Development Organization, Bharat Electronics, and the Indian Rare Earth Organization. India’s importing sophisticated technologies now is not subject to the comprehensive negativism of the Enhanced Proliferation Control Initiative. US export licences are still necessary, but the applications are predicated on a positive response.
The Bush administration, which came into power in January 2001, not only continued but also expanded the qualitative positive orientation towards India initiated by Bill Clinton in the last year of his tenure. While the Bush administration remained committed to its global non-proliferation and arms control objectives, there was a certain adjustability in its approach to these issues rooted in US’s strategic and security interests. There was more political realism. India, therefore, decided to engage the US in a discussion to reduce restrictions on technological cooperation, particularly in the spheres of space, nuclear technology and dual-use goods, and on technologies given the label of Trinity.
The external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, broached this subject when he was in Washington on September 9 this year. The item also formed part of the agenda of the prime minister’s discussion with George W. Bush. The response was positive. S. Rangarajan and Anil Kakodkar, chiefs of our space and atomic energy departments, followed up on this political dialogue when their US counterpart came to India. The US under-secretary of commerce, Ken Juster, visited India in the second week of this month to give more substance to India-US exchanges on this subject.
There is a joint India-US high-tech technology consultative group tasked with working out plans of bilateral technological cooperation across the board. This, however, does not mean that there would be no differences of opinion between India and the US on this issue. The cooperation has to be structured subject to the general obligations of the US government to its legislative non-proliferation obligations. However, the political and strategic considerations affecting US policies towards India seem to be changing. The president of the US has to present a national security assessment to the congress once during every tenure. Bush made this presentation in September 2002. It is significant that he referred to India in this presentation under the chapter of emerging centres of global power, underlining the strengthening of relations with India as an important item on the US’s foreign policy agenda.
The India-US trade in technology, particularly the non-atomic energy sector, forms a major segment of India-US bilateral trade and it is growing at the rate of 35 per cent to 40 per cent per annum. The US seems to reluctantly acknowledge India’s nuclear weapons status, and more important, India’s capacities to function as a responsible nuclear weapons power (even though the US does not recognize India as a nuclear power legally).
Further meetings of the high-technology consultative group are scheduled for next year and it is reasonable to presume that cooperation in the technological sector would be a cementing factor in India-US relations. This prospect, is of course subject to overall strategic stipulation that India’s policies do not radically contradict or challenge the global and regional order envisaged by the US policy planners. The extent to which India can conform to the US’s world-views in the context of Indian interests constitutes a challenge for India’s foreign policy planners.
Having stated this, one also has to acknowledge that there are doubts and reticences in India about the reliability of the US as a source of defence supplies and technologies because of India’s experience of the US turning off the tap whenever it feels that US interests are affected by Indian policy orientations, particularly in relation to Pakistan. This remains a limitation.