Nuking own interests

Recent developments on two fronts — one external and the other internal — underscore the need to think carefully about our relationship with the United States. On the external side, there has been a flurry of developments relating to Afghanistan. For a start, there is increased Pakistani activism to promote a settlement in Afghanistan by

offering to act as an intermediary between Kabul and the insurgent groups. The Americans disavow any involvement in these efforts. Nevertheless they are taking a close interest in the “reconciliation” process. For it appears to offer the easiest way of reducing American military commitment to Afghanistan.
The fact that Pakistan could be nicely stringing them along is not lost on all American observers. But the Obama administration continues to delude itself about Pakistan. Seven months after the capture of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar, the Pakistanis are openly claiming that the arrest was aimed at preventing any talks between Kabul and the insurgent leadership that sought to leave Pakistan in the cold. Yet Washington tries to explain these away as “self-serving” claims by Islamabad. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with the Obama administration’s spin on the WikiLeaks revelations about Pakistan’s role in stoking the insurgency.
The American stance cuts against our interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” — a euphemism for a client state — in Afghanistan has destabilised the region for the last three decades. The United States’ unwillingness to treat Pakistan as part of the problem rather than the solution threatens to perpetuate this instability. What’s more, in deference to Pakistan’s wishes the US has connived at undermining our position in Afghanistan. The most recent instance is the American-driven agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan which prohibits Indian exports to Afghanistan through Wagah.
Kabul, for its part, has been vocal in its criticism of Pakistan’s assistance to the insurgent groups. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s effort to reach out to the political leadership in Pakistan has yielded little. In a strong opinion piece in Washington Post earlier this week, the Afghan national security adviser wrote that success in Afghanistan requires “confronting the state (Pakistan) that still sees terrorism as a strategic asset and foreign policy tool”. New Delhi too has belatedly decided to consider working with Iran and Russia in forestalling a Taliban resurgence. Efforts have also begun to persuade members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to get their act together. But eventually New Delhi will have to go further in strengthening its strategic relationship with Kabul and in initiating steps that will not be welcomed by Washington.
However, developments on the domestic front suggest that the government remains chary of displeasing the US — even where our own interests are at stake. The ongoing tussle over the Nuclear Liability Bill is an excellent case in point. The central point of contention concerns the liability of the supplier — as opposed to that of the operator of a nuclear power plant — in the event of an accident. The original draft bill placed all the liability on the operator. But Clause 17 of the draft bill also allowed the operator a “right of recourse”, that is the right to recover from the supplier any compensation the operator is forced to pay, under certain circumstances: (a) when such a right is provided in the contract between the supplier and operator; (b) when the incident resulted from “wilful act or gross negligence” on the part of the supplier; (c) when the incident resulted from the act of a person “done with the intent to cause nuclear damage”.
From the outset, the American nuclear industry was opposed to the provision for channelling any liability to the supplier. For this would expose them to litigation in the event of accident. They argued that the proposed Indian bill did not accord with the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, which places exclusive liability on the operator and to which India wishes to accede. This mincingly legalistic argument skims over some uncomfortable facts. For one, there is nothing in the convention that prevents signatories from going beyond its provisions or from registering their reservations. The more galling point is that there is nothing in the American legal system that provides the kind of immunity to suppliers that American firms are seeking in India. In any case, the convention has been ratified only by four countries and is not yet in force.
And yet the government has sought to accommodate the Americans by modifying the clause in ingenious ways to shield suppliers from legal action. As of this writing, it is not clear what shape the clause will eventually assume following the debate in Parliament. But the very fact that the government has gone to such lengths is dismaying. What’s worse, the government’s efforts have been justified and endorsed in extraordinary terms by champions of a close embrace of the US. One commentator has argued that stringent legislation would ensure that foreign firms would simply refuse to enter the market. Moreover, it would reinforce the Americans’ impression that “Do India a favour and it can’t reciprocate”. Another columnist reminds us that “there is something called gratitude”.
Such mawkish claims sit awkwardly with the utterly unsentimental fashion in which the US deals with its closest allies: think only of their response to British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The naiveté of such arguments is all the starker at a time when the Americans are insouciant about our interests in the neighbourhood. Besides, given that we are poised for a dramatic expansion of our nuclear energy sector, our ability to drive hard bargains, and the willingness of suppliers to live with them, should not be underestimated. Admirers of the US would do well to appreciate and emulate that country’s adroitness in using its domestic legislation to advance its international interests.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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