April 04, 2020
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Misplaced Optimism

The Talbott-Singh talks evoked great expectations but the duo may find it tough to reconcile their divergent positions

Misplaced Optimism

IT is an uphill task and easy solutions are ever elusive. Which is why phrases like ‘substantive and constructive discussions’, ‘right spirit’, ‘spirit of working together’ were bandied around when the third round of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue ended last week. But this could not hide the fact that on fundamental issues the divergence in the stances of the two countries had not narrowed.

Since the start of the Indo-US dialogue in the post-nuclear period in June, there has been so much hype about it and so many expectations have been created, that it is going to be very difficult for the two governments to fulfil these expectations, says a strategic affairs analyst. Which is why at the moment the expectation that something may get done by the end of August when the two sides meet again in Washington smacks of misplaced optimism.

So what have prime minister’s envoy, Jas-want Singh, and US deputy secretary of state Talbott achieved in the latest round? As a participant in the discussions said, they were trying to reconcile the national interests of India and the US. Left unsaid was that on basic issues reconciliation may be tough.

Washington’s objectives for both India and Pakistan, as spelled out in various fora are: conduct no further nuclear tests, sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) immediately and without any conditions; refrain from deploying nuclear weapons or missile systems; halt the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons; participate constructively in negotiations towards a fissile material cut-off treaty; for-malise existing policies not to export weapons of mass destruction and missile technology or equipment; and resume direct dialogue to address the root causes of tension between them, including Kashmir. Essentially the "overarching US objective is to preserve and enhance the global nonproliferation regime", says an observer.

New Delhi’s objective is also quite clear: to have a minimum nuclear deterrence. As for some of the measures sought by the US,India has already declared a moratorium on further tests and, as prime minister A.B. Vajpayee announced in Parliament on May 27, it has "indicated willingness to move towards a de jure formalisation of this declaration". India has also said it would participate in the FMCT negotiations. But these declaratory positions won’t satisfy the US.

However, it has been made clear to the US that there can be no compromise on India building a minimum nuclear deterrent. This means it will go ahead with its nuclear weaponisation programme as well as the missile programme. "The Americans have been told clearly that missile tests will not stop. They can’t turn around this time and say they were taken by surprise," says the strategic affairs expert.

The corollary to this is whether India will produce and deploy these missiles. Talbott has conveyed that the highest concern the US now has is over the deployment of the missiles. The Clinton administration has been arguing that operational deployment is not necessary, now that India has accomplished "what it feels was necessary for its security". This change in the US policy of acceptance of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan has been in evidence for some time. The US is keen that deployment should be avoided at all costs. In short, the Singh-Talbott talks have revolved around these central issues.

Much has been made out of a possible deal between the two countries—that India signs the CTBT in return for the easing of economic sanctions and lifting of restrictions on dual-use technology. The Americans have strong reservations about this. They don’t want to be perceived to be "rewarding a proliferator", says the Indian strategic analyst. The Americans have not hidden their worry that other nations might also try to gatecrash through the global non-proliferation regime. And so, the US administration’s public posture is India will not do the US any favour by signing the CTBT. It argues that India needn’t sign the CTBT unless the government has sufficient support in Parliament and among the people.

But they are astute enough to realise that no Indian government will sign the CTBT unconditionally, a line which the Vajpayee government has taken since the May 11 tests. Besides, the government has made no effort to build a consensus on signing the treaty. In fact, after his meeting with Talbott, former prime minister I.K. Gujral, who had earlier recommended that India sign the CTBT, went on record saying that the US shouldn’t force India to sign the treaty and give time to the government to foster a consensus.

Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, sees the situation somewhat differently: "The Americans are in a great hurry to look for some accommodation before the end of August." Agrees Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research: "The CTBT is at India’s mercy. India can make or unmake it. That is our single instrument of leverage and we have to use it to our full advantage." In fact, it is being made out that Bill Clinton’s South Asia trip hinges on the progress made in the next round in Washington. Americans would want India and Pakistan on board if Clinton hopes to get Congress to ratify the CTBT later, argues Jasjit Singh.

But some Indian strategic affairs specialists believe that the CTBT can provide only a limited leverage. Besides, what the Americans can offer is equally limited. "There can be no deal on core issues, like removal of restrictions on technology or a level playing field with the nuclear weapon states," asserts one of them. He says India should secure further leverage by going ahead with its weaponisation and carrying out more missile tests. He is not surprised that the US does not want to talk about any deal at the moment or give any hint of it publicly, adding they have shifted the goal post after acknowledging that India will have a minimum nuclear deterrent. "The focus is now on deployment," he declares. There is also the recognition in Indian policymaking circles that beyond a point India can’t remain isolated for too long. If the Americans want they can turn on the heat, leaving Indians firefighting all around the world.

Even though the talks may be making slow progress, pessimism has been conspicuously absent. They both have their compulsions and constraints and, within these, it suits both India and the US to carry on a dialogue. For India it is useful to be seen to be engaged with the US and, for the US, which does not want to be taken by another surprise, it is constructive to try and understand what to expect next. Says former foreign secretary S.K. Singh: "It’s a good first step. The point is to see how fast and how far it goes. Nobody imagines it will happen tomorrow." Indeed.

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