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#3090, 12 April 2010
Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit: Case for Indo-US Partnership?
Swaran Singh
Professor,Diplomacy & Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
email: drswaransingh@gmail.com

Much talked of Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) of President Obama opens today in Washington DC.  Heads of state and government from 44 of the 47 participating countries – along with UN Secretary General and Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency – will spend two days deliberating on how to secure nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.  Unlike his predecessors, Obama remains convinced that nuclear terrorism poses the most immediate threat and needs urgent initiatives.  This makes nuclear terrorism his top priority opening new vistas for strengthening Indo-US partnership.

In spite of his critics and other last minute hiccups, two landmark events of last week – the release of Nuclear Posture Review and the signing of US-Russia Nuclear Agreement in Prague – have significantly boosted credentials of President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons free world, which remains the guiding spirit behind this summit.  This has enhanced his moral authority in leading the world leaders at this summit.

The origins of this summit can be traced to Obama’s presidential campaign where he had promised to ‘lead global effort to secure all nuclear weapons and materials at vulnerable sites within four years’ and conferring of the Nobel Peace Prize evinces his perseverance. Nevertheless, this summit has developed major glitches.  The Prime Ministers of three key allies – Australia, Britain, and Israel – are not attending it.  Given China’s annoyance with Obama meeting Dalai Lama last February and US arms supplies to Taiwan, President Hu Jintao did not confirm his participation until last week.  Even Canadian Prime Minister’s participation was confirmed only on Saturday morning.  In case of Australia and Israel this is a last minute decision, suspected of being politically motivated.

Moreover, given the nature of its agenda, i.e. understanding and preventing nuclear terrorism, deteriorating situation of another US ally – Pakistan – is expected to come under scrutiny.  Ideally, the summit is not supposed to focus on any individual nations yet North Korea and Iran are expected to remain writ large in its deliberations.

Lot of hard work has already gone into developing a common understanding.  Preparatory meetings of Sherpa (point persons) at Vienna, Washington, Tokyo and Hague ended last Friday in Washington and have evolved certain common text for their leaders to sign.  India’s Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, has been the Indian Sherpa in all these meetings.  This continued engagement by India has ensured that discussions do not drift towards India’s non-signing of nuclear nonproliferation treaty and comprehensive test ban treaty.  This remains especially critical as India’s policy stance on both of these treaties has been evolving in recent past but the change is not yet firmed up for any formal announcement or public scrutiny.

It suits India, therefore, to take a high moral ground commensurate with its clean record and India is going to propose the setting up of an International Safety Center in India. Prime Minister Singh had made his interest in the summit clear from the very beginning.  As the role of civilian nuclear power expands in ensuring energy security, he says, nuclear nonproliferation becomes part of addressing the “developmental challenges of our times.”  There is also need to reinforce public faith in the positive side of nuclear science. India has already been recognized as a ‘responsible nuclear power’ with ‘impeccable record of security, safety and non-proliferation’ and has an opportunity to revive its global leadership in disarmament diplomacy.

To this effect India has already increased its visibility at the summit.  Originally, Prime Minster Singh was scheduled to meet President Obama briefly at the margins of the two-day summit. But given India’s concerns about various issues – like denial of access to Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Headley, rumors about Pakistan inching towards an India-like nuclear deal, hiccups on India’s role in Afghanistan and so on –  as also due to intervention by State Department, two sides held a mini Indo-US summit yesterday discussing bilateral, regional and global initiatives. Among these the two made a major progress in implementing their nuclear as they have concluded negotiations on Reprocessing Agreement.

Singh and Obama now share a certain chemistry.  In his Keynote address to the US-India Business Council meeting last month, US Deputy National Security Adviser, Michael Froman, had declared that US considers “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attendance as key to the success” of the summit.  In tomorrow’s first plenary session, Prime Minister Singh will be among the select few to make an intervention outlining India’s track record in dealing with nuclear security.

No one is expecting this summit to produce lasting solutions. But this two-day summit will surely leave an important footprint in building consensus from amongst such a diverse group of countries on the need to (a) tighten their national controls over the export of nuclear materials, (b) to increase coordination in surveillance efforts and (c) encourage intelligence sharing against risks of nuclear materials and components potentially diverting to any terrorist organization.  Given that India will not be present at the NPT Review Conference next month this presents a golden opportunity for India to engage in this inter-national discourse in issues of nuclear proliferation and nuclear security.

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