Buckling under U.S. pressure

Print edition : August 01, 1998

Indications from the Talbott visit are that the U.S. still insists on India signing the CTBT unconditionally; the deal that the BJP-led Government hoped for is nowhere in evidence.

THE third round of talks between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and the Indian Prime Minister's special envoy Jaswant Singh in New Delhi on July 20 and 21 ended without any signs of a softening of Washington's tough stance on issues related to nuclear nonproliferation in the specific context of South Asia.

From available indications, the Clinton administration is in no mood to strike a "deal" with India. The only firm commitment it is willing to offer is a guarantee that President Bill Clinton will not postpone his planned visit to India later this year if the Indian Government agrees to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In early July, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) had sent out signals to the State Department that India was willing to sign the CTBT, provided India's security concerns were accommodated and the sanctions, imposed on India after the nuclear tests in May, were lifted. New Delhi wanted an assurance from Washington that it would be allowed to retain its weaponisation option.

There were some signs that Washington was rethinking its strategy in order to coax India and Pakistan into signing the CTBT. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth told the U.S. Congress that there was a "need to be realistic about what we are demanding" from India and Pakistan. Both countries, he said, would keep their security interests in mind despite the U.S. sanctions. The purpose of the sanctions, Inderfurth said, was to "influence" the two countries' "behaviour... and not simply to punish them for punishment's sake." In the case of India, he said, sanctions had already resulted in the postponement of more than $1 billion worth of loans, "which is having a ripple effect on the Indian economy" and was affecting investor confidence.

Before Talbott's visit to Delhi, a process was set in motion in Congress to authorise Clinton to waive the sanctions under certain conditions (see separate story). Inderfurth told Congress that Clinton would invoke this authority only if "substantial progress" was made on a number of non-proliferation and other objectives, as spelt out by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the Group of 8 developed nations and in Security Council resolution No. 1172. Among them were conditions that both India and Pakistan would, while refraining from conducting any more nuclear tests, would sign and ratify the CTBT unconditionally, halt the deployment of nuclear weapons and missile systems and resume direct dialogue to address the "root causes" of tension, including the Kashmir issue.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in New Delhi on July 20. From available indications, the Clinton administration is in no mood to strike a "deal" with India, and still insists on India signing the CTBT unconditionally.-AP/PTI

ALTHOUGH Talbott observed all the diplomatic niceties, he came to Delhi with a tough message. For the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government, signing the CTBT without securing any concessions from Washington would be politically suicidal. Even so, the Government went to great lengths to keep the U.S. in good humour. India reportedly offered to reopen its laboratories to international monitoring in order to prove that it is adhering to its announcement in May of a moratorium on nuclear tests. India withdrew from the international monitoring system in 1996 after refusing to sign the CTBT. The Indian Government is now trying to send a message across to Washington that it is serious about its test ban commitments. If the seismic laboratory in Gauribidanur in Karnataka and the radio-nuclei laboratory in Allahabad are opened for inspection, India can declare that it is not conducting seismic, ultra-sound and radio-nuclei tests.

During the July 20-21 meetings, the Indian side reiterated its commitment to the international guidelines on export control regimes and the broad parameters of nuclear non-proliferation. It also cited its willingness to hold negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). However, it insisted that it be allowed to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent for security reasons.

Gen. Joseph Ralston, Vice-Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied Talbott to Delhi and had an hour-long meeting with Defence Minister George Fernandes. Indian officials consider Ralston's presence in the Talbott team significant. The U.S. had called off joint naval exercises with India in June. No fresh dates were announced after Ralston's talks with Fernandes.

The U.S. delegation's unwillingness to offer any concessions and the strong criticism by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress(I) of the Government's apparent moves to sign the CTBT unconditionally forced the BJP to play for time. Even granted that the BJP-led Government signed the CTBT, Parliament would not ratify it, given the broad-based consensual opinion that the CTBT is a discriminatory treaty. During the Delhi talks, the Indian side expressed reservations about certain provisions of the CTBT, but indications are that assurances were given that the Government would sign it before September 1999.

Indian officials claim that the U.S. now has a better understanding of India's position on Kashmir. Talbott is considered to be one of a handful of officials in Clinton's inner circle who have an unbiased view of the politics of the subcontinent. In the perception of Indian officials, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Inderfurth have a pro-Pakistan tilt. And among the senior BJP leaders, Jaswant Singh is known to be close to business and defence lobbies in Washington. That Talbott and Jaswant Singh had struck a rapport with each other was in evidence in Frankfurt and New Delhi.

After the Talbott-Jaswant Singh meeting, the Government issued a statement that said that both sides had a "clearer understanding of each other's concerns" and were contemplating steps that would address these concerns. The statement, however, added that "ground still remains to be covered". Talbott told the media that all aspects of bilateral relations as well as regional and security matters were discussed. "We have established a very wide canvas on which we are seeking to paint, but we have a long way to go," he said.

Jaswant Singh said that New Delhi's known position on all security-related aspects was made explicit to Washington. One of the aims of the U.S. interlocutors was to find out whether there was any coherent or detailed nuclear doctrine in place in India.

Relative to Talbott's rank, he was accorded a rather high-profile reception in New Delhi. Talbott met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (to whom he delivered a letter from President Clinton) and Home Minister L.K. Advani. He also called on Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi and spent an hour with former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, who these days is engaged in fire-fighting on behalf of the BJP in the foreign policy arena. Gujral told the media that he had told Talbott that U.S. policies had pushed the Indian people towards the "bomb direction" and that the U.S. administration should not pressure India into signing the CTBT.

Gujral is now in favour of India signing the CTBT but wants the Government to be given more time to build a consensus among the people. As External Affairs Minister and later as Prime Minister, Gujral was one of the most articulate opponents of the CTBT. The United Front government was opposed to the idea of signing the CTBT on the principled ground that the treaty did not address the question of elimination of nuclear weapons at the global level and that being a signatory to it would foreclose India's option of nuclear testing in the future. The first point still remains valid. But Gujral and the BJP think that the strategic environment has changed radically since then. Senior Ministers and officials have in recent months suddenly made the discovery that the country is surrounded by hostile powers, with additional threats coming from Diego Garcia and Myanmar. The alleged threats from Pakistan and China were articulated more openly and strongly.

Talbott tried to sell the CTBT idea to Sonia Gandhi. But although Sonia Gandhi has not been forthcoming about her views on the CTBT, some of her advisers such as Manmohan Singh, who are greatly concerned over the economic impact of the sanctions, are said to be "pragmatic" about signing the CTBT.

Interestingly, after the Sonia-Talbott meeting, a Congress(I) spokesman said that the national interest should dictate foreign policy; he, however, added that the CTBT should not be signed in its present form. India, he also said, should not sign the "discriminatory" treaty under U.S. pressure. Leader of the Opposition and former Defence Minister Sharad Pawar echoed this view. "There is a consensus within the country and within Parliament that India should not be a signatory to the CTBT because the treaty does not give equal terms to all," Pawar said. India, he said, was committed to total nuclear disarmament.

Former Defence Minister and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav said that there was "no question of signing the CTBT."

Prakash Karat, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) told Frontline that there should be no question of India striking a "deal" on the CTBT with the Clinton administration. "The only deal," he said, "would be a surrender. India will not get anything substantial by signing the CTBT."

Maj.Gen. Dipankar Bannerjee of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies is of the view that the time for bargaining with Washington is over. The BJP-led Government is only posturing and it has no coherent policy to deal with the aftermath of Pokhran, says Bannerjee. Many independent analysts feel that the BJP is now paying the price for the "aggressive" image of itself that it cultivated over the years.

It was evident that Talbott did not come to Delhi with any "package". Instead, there are indications that Talbott's major goal is to make a "deal" with Pakistan. A bailout package from the International Monetary Fund-World Bank seems to be ready for Islamabad. In return, Pakistan is likely to sign the CTBT. The powerful U.S. farm lobby has already wangled a concession from the Clinton administration to sell wheat to Pakistan. Given the precarious state of the country's economy (see story on page 57), the Pakistan Government is getting ready to live a "ship to mouth" existence. (U.S. ships could be soon bringing food aid, a fate India faced in the 1960s during the PL 480 days.) India will have no problems paying its debts but a sluggish growth rate as a result of the sanctions seems to be inevitable.

The security scenario for India has worsened in the last three months. China, according to Bannerjee, has again got its missiles arrayed after the worsening of relations. China has a deployed weapons capability that will be difficult for India to match. The next round of the meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) of the two countries stands postponed indefinitely.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, continues to insist that India sign the CTBT. When Talbott was still in Delhi, State Department spokesman James Rubin reiterated that India and Pakistan should sign the CTBT "one way or the other".

Jaswant Singh and Talbott are scheduled to meet again in the second week of August in Washington.

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