Anil A. Athale.



Much of the debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal going on in the public domain lacks depth since the critics and supporter seem to miss the wood while counting the trees. The Indo-US nuclear deal is NOT about the nuclear issue at all, it is only a means to an end. Essentially the tough negotiations had a single point agenda- India’s place in the emerging world order, nuclear deal is a means to it and NOT the end.





Historically, US was  always more interested in China rather than India. Till the early 20th century as the memories of British colonial rule lingered on in the US, there was some sympathy as well as support to the cause of Indian independence. But since First World War and Anglo-US alliance, the US left India in the British sphere of influence. During the Second World War, in 1942, the US was worried about Indo-Japanese alliance and brought pressure on Britain to accommodate Indian nationalism ( The Cripps Mission). But the ill timed and failed ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942, convinced the US of India’s ineffectiveness and it went along with Britain in its creation of Pakistan as counter to India. In the Tehran Conference of Nov 1943, China who’s contribution to the war effort was much less than India’s, was accorded the   Great Power status, while India’s claims went unrepresented and were dismissed by the American’s saying that India is yet to win its York Town ( this refers to the decisive battle of War of American Independence- Oct 1781).


Post Indian independence and once China fell to the Communist’s, the US did have an interest in India’s survival to halt the spread of Communism. As Thomas C. Schelling ( the Guru of strategic studies in the US) says “Nehru anticipated it for ten years………that is one of the reason that he was so contemptuous of the kind of treaties the Thais and Pakistanis signed with us ( US).” (‘Arms and Influence’ Yale University, 1966, p. 53). In 1962, despite being involved in a life and death struggle with the Soviet Union over Cuba ( the Missile Crisis), the US came to India’s rescue in Oct-Nov 1962, when China attacked India in the Himalayas.


The first faint stirrings of Sino-Soviet rift started to apparent in 1961-62. A detailed study commissioned by President Kennedy recommended a policy of economic engagement and military containment of China. The open clash of arms in 1969 between China and Soviet Union over the Dymanisky island and Amur-Ussuri river border, saw a change in American policy. Soon a quasi Sino-US alliance came into being, sanctified by Nixon’s visit to China and Shanghai declaration of 1972  There the matters stood for nearly 20 long years till the dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991-92.


India’s first nuclear test in 1974 was as much in response to the Sino-US alliance as it was to the NPT ( Non Proliferation Treaty ) a few years earlier. The 1974 Pokhran I tests had nothing whatsoever to do with Pakistan, that was still licking its wounds after the 1971 military debacle. An incident of 1982 is indicative of the kind of Indo-US-China relationship. In 1982, Indira Gandhi and Ronald Reagan took major initiative to put back Indo-US relations on even keel. At that time India was very keen to buy Cray super computers from the US. These were freely supplied to China but Indian request was denied. When an Indian asked as to how the US supplied it to China when there was no treaty relationship with that country while India was denied the same, an American diplomat had stated that with China there was no need for any treaty, implying that the Sino-US interest so coincided that a formal treaty was not needed.


Throughout the period of 1971 to 1992, India was regarded as an adversary by the US and it collaborated with Pakistan/China in internal attempts to destabilize the country and break it up. The murky ‘Kanishka’ bombing cover up is only the tip of the iceberg  ( In 1982, late Jean KirkPatrick, the US representative in UN actually expressed the view that India was too unmanageable and must be broken into smaller parts). To counter Indian nuclear capability, the US helped Pakistan go nuclear through help from German companies and AQ Khan. Enough evidence has surfaced to show American connivance at the Pakistani efforts.


The 1991-92 collapse of Soviet Union was an unforeseen event. Most analysts had expected the du-polar world to continue indefinitely. In light of this premise the American actions vis a vis Pakistani nuclear effort and generous tech/economic help to China make perfect sense. So also the cold shouldering of India!


The entrenched views and world bureaucracies were slow to react to this change. Right till 2000 AD the US continued it’s hostile approach to India, specially after the 1998 Pokhran II thermonuclear tests. US Secretary of State,  Madeline Albright ( a pun calls her Mad on line not all bright )  during the first term of Bill Clinton had even asked China to ‘manage’ South Asia. In India the situation was no better. Steeped in Nehruvian world view, the Indian diplomats were jubilant when the short lived 1991 August Coupe took place in USSR……..they longed for the return of old style Soviet Union! For this brief period, the perpetual “monkey on India’s back’ Pakistan, was reduced to a position of irrelevance.


The terrorist attacks on the US on 11 Sep and quick turnaround by Pakistan; brought in the windfall of American aid to Pakistan in return for killing of Mujahideen. Pakistan reverted to it’s ‘most allied of the allies’ status for the US. All this while China’s economic rise and feverish military build up finally began to be taken seriously by the US. In a sense the present US approach to China seems a throw back to the 1960s when the aim was economic engagement and military containment. US engagement with Pakistan is limited to control of its nukes and prevent ‘Talibaization’. It no longer uses it as a proxy to breakup/contain India. Though it would not like it to go under so that India does not become too big for its boots! Today the real patrons of Pakistan are Chinese.



To counter the rising China, the US has no alternative other than India. India is the only country in Asia that has the potential, both economic and military, to balance China on its Western flank. Neither tiny Japan nor ASEAN has that potential. Whether India has the ‘will’ to do it is a moot point. While on the other hand, India has several alternatives like the European Union or Russian Federation, with which it can collaborate without raising the Chinese heckles. India’s decision as to what course it takes is dependent on what the US has to offer in return.


Ever since the 1974 nuclear test India has been put in dog house as far as trade in technologies of dual use is concerned. The “Wisenaar arrangement’ has comprehensive lists of goods that cannot be traded with India. This has had a crippling effect on Indian industrialization as well as defense preparedness. We are working for last 20 years on a nuclear submarine without results……..( of course there are domestic/bureaucratic reasons as well for this failure) . Once the Nuclear deal is signed that ‘Technological Apartheid’ would end.


Apparently, given the likely geopolitical situation for the next 50 years, the US is actually interested in India’s military build up. Indian military nuclear programme was apparently NOT  the sticking point holding up the agreement. For it is today in the interest of the US itself that India develops nuclear capability comparable to that of China.


If one is to believe the media reports then the problem area between the US and India was the reprocessing of spent fuel, fast breeder reactors and Thorium cycle. All these three are essential if India is to attain ‘Energy Security’ and free itself from dependence on oil. Interestingly, while the Arabs produce the oil, the oil market ( and profits) are controlled by the ‘Seven Sisters’ or the oil companies that are American controlled. It appears that as an insurance against future change in Indian policies, the US is loath to permit India to be energy independent.


On one hand the US caution is justified given their experience with China (whom they aided to become technologically advanced), yet in foreseeable future, of at least next 50 years, the Indian interests in world would coincide with  the Americans. In addition there is the large and influential presence of Indian Diaspora in America. Given this situation, it is indeed strange that America harbours suspicion of India.


Given these lack of options on part of the US, it is very unlikely that the US can really browbeat India on the energy independence issue. India is no longer a country that is living from ‘Ship to mouth’ (as in 1965) hence the American pressure is NOT likely to work.



Again quoting Schelling, (p.vii of Arms and Influence), keeping India away from nuclear weapons was a long term goal of the US. In this it has failed. Prof. Joseph S. Nye (a long serving Asst Secy. Of State) observes that a great power is one that does NOT have to alter its national interests to suit the situation but has the power to alter the situation so that it does not have to change. The US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has exposed the limitations of American power. The US has really no choice but to adjust its laws and policies to clinch the deal with India. The US Non Proliferation ‘Ayatollahs’ are living in a bygone world………The US is only using them as a pressure tactic.


For a change the Sinophile Communists of India are also playing a ‘positive’ role by being ‘negative’ about the Indo-US deal. The hands of Indian govt. are strengthened by their opposition.  Similarly the anti Nuclear lobby (long promoted and paid for by the US), though now abandoned, and is doing its bit by opposing the agreement with US. Such is the pathetic public image of these media promoted experts, that anything they oppose is instinctively supported by common Indians.


The story of Indo-US relations is a tale of missed opportunities, misperceptions and miscalculations. The nuclear agreement has the potential to  profoundly affect the course of 21st century.