Welcome to America, Mr. Singh!


When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes to Washington DC next week his priority number one will be to dispel any doubts of Washington’s commitment to New Delhi in a region where it rivals China and Pakistan — both seen as U.S. foreign policy priorities.

Indian diplomats and White House representative tell us that two leaders will discuss issues ranging from environment to accelerating the completion of a landmark civilian nuclear deal signed last year with Bush administration. It is rather interesting that Mr. Singh will be in Washington a week after President Obama in Beijing pledged to strengthen ties with China.

It is no secret that America views India as a countervailing force against rising China. America encourages India’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan, and calculates that Indian and American interests coincide in seeking to develop pipelines that would draw central Asia’s oil reserves toward the Indian Ocean.

Analysts argue that the current Indo-US relationship is good, but lacks a central defining issue, such as the civilian nuclear deal, that shaped the relationship during the presidency of George Bush.

Singh and Obama will try to regain some of the momentum back- with possibly more Indian involvement in Afghanistan.  India has been critical of the Obama administrations Afghan strategy and claims it’s focus on Pakistan comes at the expense of other regional stakeholders such as India. India and the US have been concerned with China’s engagement in Afghanistan as well.

Indian policy makers viewed the Afghan war a godsend – an opportunity to reverse Pakistan’s increased influence in Afghanistan and more importantly to advance its geopolitical interests in oil-rich central Asia. It was based on these two key fundamentals that India decided to support the US invasion of Afghanistan. India facilitated contact with  Northern Alliance and provided intelligence from ground.

Just like America had showered Pakistan with ‘blessings’, Bush administration also expanded ties with India for being it’s eyes and ears on Afghan soil. This romance developed so rapidly that the US declared its eagerness to assist India in becoming a “world power.”  For the services rendered to the ‘new masters,’ India received a unique status within the world nuclear regulatory regime – despite being a non signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But India has been sensitive to Washington’s perceived growing ties with China and Pakistan. During his presidential campaign, Obama had committed to addressing regional issues including Kashmir.

India has also complained abut Obama administrations’ stance on a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on all nations to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). India has refused to sign the CTBT on the grounds that it could imperil the development of India’s “strategic deterrent,” i.e. its nuclear weapons arsenal.

This week Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement pledging to “promote peace, stability and development” in south Asia. Indian Foreign Ministry fired back: “The Government of India is committed to resolving all outstanding issues with Pakistan through a peaceful bilateral dialogue in accordance with the Simla Agreement. A third country role cannot be envisaged.”

India has been inserting itself in Afghanistan in past years. But India is not completely behind Karzai government either- Hamid Karzai believes a negotiated solution of Afghan problem is possible. He is intent on persuading sections of the Taliban to enter into peace negotiations and ultimately incorporating them into Afghanistan’s government. Indian officials and media commentators have repeatedly declared that there is no such thing as “good Taliban.”  Indians fear that Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan will grow significantly in the event of a rapprochement with elements hitherto associated with the Taliban.

Obama is likely to assure Singh that his country’s interest will be protected in Afghanistan.

Singh needs this assurance specially because General Stanley McChrystal in a confidential report submitted to the US President Barack Obama on August 30 wrote: “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”

Needless to say Indians did not fancy McChrystal’s recommendation.

The Indian government has invested more than $1.2 billion since 2001. Mr. Singh will want Obama to ensure that McChrystal’s reports lands in the trash and a guarantee Obama will facilitate India’s regional hegemonic role. From what I hear in Washington DC, it seems Singh will leave happy.

Indians were busy today (Friday) on the Hill to make progress on the civilian nuclear deal. America wants guarantees from New Delhi — that it won’t pass on its nuclear know-how. In other words- India will not proliferate but India refuses to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

During her recent visit to India Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a deal allowing two US companies, General Electric and Westingouse, to build a pair of new nuclear power reactors at a cost of $10 billion. Before any contracts are signed, the US companies are asking the Indian parliament to pass legislation which would limit the companies’ liability in case of nuclear accidents.

Before this deal goes any further, Indian law needs to be modified to set limits on the liability assessed to American companies involved with any kind of nuclear development. Even in the United States, liability is limited to about $11 billion, whereas the damage caused by accidents at nuclear power plants are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. US companies want similar liability protections, and it remains to be seen whether the Indian parliament will satisfy those requests.

Under current international law, the nuclear industry, or rather, state-owned nuclear enterprises, operate under sovereign limitation. In other words, Russian and French nuclear reactors can protected by the built-in liability insurance provided by their respective governments, since they are publicly owned. However, Westinghouse and General Electric are not accorded this same security, as they are privately owned. In an analogous circumstance, during the US-Russia negotiations over the use of Cold War plutonium, including surplus plutonium from weapons in Russian reactors, the failure to arrive at a liability agreement was the major stumbling block in the execution of the deal.

The Convention on Supplementary Compensation is a UN convention responsible for limited liability, and its aim is essentially to deny fair compensation. Basically, the US wants India to sign and ratify this convention as a precondition of their participation in the deal. This is a topic that has not been the subject of the domestic debate as of yet, because there were bigger barriers the governments of India and the US government had to cross. Now that those obstacles have all but been bulldozed, this issue of liability protection is bound to be quite politically sensitive. The text of the defense agreement has not been made public, and chances are slim that it will be made public in its full form. Nor do we know, as of now, the future locations of the specific reactor sites.

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