Pokhran II and After: Dark Clouds Over Indo-US Relations

Chintamani Mahapatra,Research Fellow,IDSA


Ever since the series of nuclear tests, known as Pokhran II, conducted by India, the burgeoning economic and security ties between India and the United States have been punctuated and the political ambience in the bilateral relationship has been marked by unfriendly rhetoric or persistent defiance. While the nuclear tests by India surprised all and sundry, including the powerful intelligence community of the United States, India has been surprised by the wild reactions by some influential Americans.

US President Bill Clinton found the nuclear tests by India an affront to the US efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. He stated that he was "deeply disturbed by the nuclear tests", he did not believe that such tests contributed to "building a safer 21st century" and added that "this action by India not only threatens the stability of the region, it directly challenges the firm international consensus to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."1 US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot characterised the tests by India and subsequently by Pakistan as a path leading to a "dead end" and advised others not to "follow down that path".2 Several experts of the American strategic community too were critical of the Indian nuclear tests. Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institution said that the nuclear tests in South Asia were an "eye-opener" for people who believed that the Cold War had ended and that the nuclear era was "finally winding down."3 Joe Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that the world may be witnessing "the next great wave of proliferation."4 Gary Milholin of Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control stressed the importance of sanctions and said that any other course would "send a message to the rest of the world that we don't care."5

While several analysts point out that the US anger emanated from India's decision to conduct the surprise test rather than a notified one, the anger should be directed at themselves and not against India. How many countries in the world, including the United States, have informed others in advance regarding their respective nuclear weapons programme? Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the US Congress that the Indians had deceived the United States by conducting the nuclear tests.6 The US State Department officials and the American diplomats appear to be under the impression that India should have spelled out its nuclear programme to them, since the two countries were in the process of conducting "strategic dialogue" in the new context of the post-Cold War era. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, was in Delhi not long before the Pokhran II explosions and he felt deceived that his Indian counterparts had said nothing about their plans. The author of the Indo-US "strategic dialogue," Thomas Pickering, too reportedly looked "unprepared" when India conducted the nuclear tests. The literature on American foreign policy and national security issues is replete with examples of American intelligence failures, including in its own backyard--the southern hemisphere. The United States had not only failed in preventing Communism from taking root in Cuba and later in Nicaragua but also had the humiliating experience of the "Bay of Pigs" incident. One fails to understand why the failure of the US intelligence in knowing India's planned nuclear tests should be made such an emotional issue.

Moreover, it was not so long ago that the Reagan and the Bush Administrations had looked the other way when Pakistan was frantically engaged in its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon capability in the midst of the Afghanistan crisis. While the US intelligence reports were flooded with information about Pakistan's indulgence in nuclear weapon activities, both President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush certified that country's nuclear virginity under the requirements of the Pressler Amendment. As and when the Pressler Amendment was imposed against Pakistan in 1990, the efforts to wriggle that country out of it also soon started by the White House. It was the massive lobbying activities by the Clinton Administration which led to the enactment of the Brown Amendment by the US Congress. Interestingly, the Clinton Administration, which claims to have put non-proliferation on top of the agenda of US foreign policy, was instrumental in making the efforts towards diluting the Pressler Amendment a success. The US inaction over the Sino-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation, in addition, sets another example of US soft policy towards Pakistan's nuclear activities.7

Moreover, it is now part of the recorded nuclear history of the world that India's nuclear test explosion in 1974 had triggered the US and international efforts for establishment of a series of control regimes and mechanisms to check nuclear proliferation. It was an indication that even in the midst of the Cold War, the US was not prepared to accept India's emergence as a powerful country on the world stage. It was the United States which had led the crusade against non-proliferation and it was the Clinton Administration in particular which had instituted a series of measures known as "Counter-Proliferation Initiatives." In the backdrop of all these developments, it was normal behaviour that New Delhi did not inform Washington about its nuclear plans. It would be simplistic to suggest that the Indians deceived the US State Department officials by keeping their defence preparedness strictly confidential.

In fact, the nuclear tests conducted by the Government of India were apparently unknown even to the leadership of Opposition political parties and most of the Opposition leaders in the Indian Parliament demanded to know the factors that led the government to undertake Pokhran II tests. Weeks before the nuclear tests, there was a controversy over Defence Minister George Fernandes' remark on China being one of the primary threats to Indian security. Several criticisms were showered upon the Defence Minister for having said so and later when India did conduct the nuclear tests, it was promptly interpreted as a step towards meeting the emerging challenges from China. Fernandes had quoted page by page from the annual reports of the Ministry of Defence in the Indian Parliament to prove that what he said was nothing new. Actually, one of the significant challenges emerging in the neighbourhood was the growing cooperation between China and Pakistan in the nuclear and missile programmes.

And those who would be interested in doing research to discover the hints of Indian preparations for nuclear tests before Pokhran II would find that such hints did exist. It is a different issue that the Western intelligence communities failed to take into account such hints in their informational analyses. Weeks before the Indian nuclear tests, Pakistan had test-fired the Ghauri missile—an intermediate range missile that could reach the heart of Indian industrial belts. On the day following the Ghauri test, a statement from the Indian Defence Ministry was issued. It said: "We are aware of the constant outside assistance to Pakistan in this field despite the existence of multilateral export control regimes.... India will draw appropriate conclusions from these developments and take resolute steps to meet any threat to its national security."8 The Defence Minister's Committee, which had been in limbo for a long time, was revived and it discussed in its very first meeting the regional security environment and global trends which would require a new "battlefield scenario" in the future. The committee noted the emerging "character of warfare and weaponry" involving highly advanced technologies and observed that defence preparedness called for reorganisation of the armed forces and development of key capabilities. The Chief of the Indian Army Staff, General V.P. Malik, on the other hand, called for acquiring a "strategic deterrence" capability to counter the emerging "nuclear and missile challenges" to India's security.9 Although US Ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, claimed that he did not get any clue about the nuclear tests during his trip to Delhi in April, Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath reportedly told him that India would take all possible steps to meet its security concerns arising from arms policies in neighbouring Pakistan and China, and India would match its neighbours' weapons.10

As for the contention that India's nuclear tests broke the prevailing consensus over nuclear non-proliferation, one may point out that India has been consistently following a policy in favour of nuclear disarmament rather than nuclear non-proliferation. The Clinton Administration officials are in the habit of citing the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (CTBT), the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties between the US and Russia and the abstinence from the nuclear path by South Africa, Argentina and Brazil as examples of great non-proliferation achievements. Why South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons programme after the end of the apartheid and beginning of the black majority rule is an open secret. The white minority government did not want to pass on the nuclear weapons and its know-how to the blacks! Argentina and Brazil, located as they are in an area covered by the "Monroe Doctrine", preferred to remain non-nuclear for obvious reasons. France and China joining the NPT did not promote non-proliferation a great deal, since China kept its secret nuclear cooperation with Pakistan going even after joining the NPT. When a large number of countries had decided to remain non-nuclear by being party to the NPT, the signing of the CTBT could hardly be called a triumph of non-proliferation. The conclusion of an American expert of arms control in his study on the subject is indeed revealing. Alan S. Krass writes in his book The United States and Arms Control: The Challenge of Leadership that "the rate of progress in virtually all areas of arms control and nonproliferation has slowed noticeably since 1993, and persistent problems of implementation and compliance can be found in most of the agreements achieved in the 1987-1993 period."11

Arguments apart, the fact remains that the remaining superpower of the post-Cold War world did feel hurt over the Indian action. In the American perception, India took a step which was bound to hamper the rising security understanding and economic cooperation between the US and India. Since 1994, a new American law known as the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act, has been in place. This Act combined all major previous legislations on proliferation issues to facilitate a clearer position of the US on the subject. One of the key parts of the legislation was incorporation of the Glenn Amendment which authorised sanctions against countries detonating one or more nuclear devices. Acting under this law, President Bill Clinton imposed the following sanctions on May 13, 1998:

— termination of assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, except for humanitarian assistance for food and other agricultural commodities;

— termination of sales of defence articles, defence services, or design and construction services under the Arms Export Control Act, and termination of licences for the export of any item on the United States munitions list;

— termination of all foreign military financing under the Arms Export Control Act;

— denial of any credit, credit guarantees, or other financial assistance by any department, agency or instrumentality of the United States government;

— the United States' opposition to the extension of any loan for financial or technical assistance by any international financial institution;

— prohibition of United States banks from making any loan or providing any credit to the Government of India, except for the purposes of purchasing food or other agricultural commodities; and

— prohibition of export of specific goods and technology subject to export licensing by the Commerce Department.

The imposition of sanctions soon sparked off various kinds of speculation in India, the United States and elsewhere. While the Government of India kept issuing statements to the effect that India could sustain American pressures and sanctions, the US government officials initially calculated that the Indian economy could lose several billion dollars of financial assistance and foreign investments due to the sanctions. Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a few European countries followed the US line in condemning the Indian tests. Japan, Denmark, Sweden and some other countries imposed their own sets of sanctions. However, Russia, France, Britain and Germany were relatively more restrained in reacting to the Indian nuclear tests. France, Russia and Britain openly went against the US policy of imposing blanket sanctions against India.

In the midst of all these developments, no one knew the exact nature of the sanctions, the extent of their implications and the degree of their effectiveness. The US officials themselves were still groping in the dark, since it was the very first time that the Glenn Amendment had been invoked. Jagdish Bhagwati, a renowned economist, said on May 25, 1998, that "the economic impact of the US sanctions would be very little.... Unilateral trade sanctions almost never work."12 Even after the imposition of sanctions, it was business as usual for the American banks in India, as the US executive orders were yet to be issued defining the role of US banks operating in India. In fact, the Under-Secretary of Treasury, David Lipton, informed the State Department as late as June 20 that the US banks would not be barred from doing business in India. It was the result of pressures from the US banks, which lobbied for pragmatic interpretation of the law to enable them to continue their operations in India. There was a fear that if the US banks were restricted, other banks from Europe and Asia could step into the Indian market. The US Enron company, as a matter of fact, had already given hints of raising funds from Europe.

Amidst all these events, Pakistan conducted its own series of nuclear tests in May—a couple of weeks after Pokhran II. It suddenly took the heat off India. The United States was bound to impose sanctions on Pakistan as well. On June 18, the State Department detailed the economic sanctions imposed against India and Pakistan and said that in imposing sanctions the US was seeking "to send a message to would-be nuclear testers; to have maximum influence on Indian and Pakistani behaviour; to target the governments, rather than the people; and to minimize the damage to other US interests."13 The last part of the statement "to minimize the damage to other US interests" is significant. By this time, the US business and banks lobbies which were pressurising the Clinton Administration to enable them to run their activities and operations in India, were joined by the US farm lobby pleading for the protection of their interests. Although the Clinton Administration succeeded in persuading the P-5, the UN Security Council and the G-8 to take a hard look at the nuclearisation of South Asia, condemn the nuclear tests, and demand compliance with international non-proliferation treaties and obligations from both India and Pakistan, it failed in carrying the European Union and others in imposing tough economic sanctions against India. While the G-8 countries in their meeting at Birmingham decided to suspend all loans to India and Pakistan on June 13, two weeks later the World Bank cleared a fresh loan of about $543 million for the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. A few days later, it approved yet another pending loan of $376 million for India.

The Clinton Administration perhaps could have taken a tougher stand in the World Bank but for the domestic pressure from the business houses and the farming communities. In fact, statements from the White House and other US officials had already indicated a change of heart before the World Bank cleared the loans for India. Both the tone of statements regarding the nuclear tests in the subcontinent and the desire to punish the countries having nuclear ambitions considerably mellowed down. President Bill Clinton, for instance, said in an interview that "the sanctions can be useful, particularly when applied by the international community as a whole" , but the United States "had become too reliant on them as a tool of foreign policy." He went on to warn: "We're in danger of looking like we want to sanction everybody who disagrees with us and not help anybody who agrees with us."14 US Secretary of State Albright publicly admitted that the sanctions imposed by the Administration had apparently failed miserably. While Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth said that the sanctions would not take the US "very far," Commerce Secretary William Daley almost blasted Washington's tendency of imposing unilateral sanctions as counter-productive.

The nature of the sanctions law is such that it has tied the hands of the Administration with little or no leeway. And, once imposed, only yet another Congressional legislation can lift them. The first step towards dealing with this law thus remained a major preoccupation of the Clinton Administration. The US business and farm lobby groups came to support the Administration's position on this issue. Two results came out of the Clinton White House's efforts towards making the law more flexible. First was, of course, a unanimous vote in the US Senate in the second week of July to exempt credit and guarantees provided by US authorities to support food and medicine exports from the Arms Exports Control Act. The decision was no doubt tailored to suit the Pakistani needs, since Pakistan is the third largest importer of American wheat. But the goal was not just to bail out Pakistan but prevent loss of business by the US farmers. Though India too would get some benefit out of this measure, it would be marginal as India's imports are a little more than $150 million worth of agricultural products from the US. The Indian market for the US agricultural products is much smaller compared to that of Pakistan. President Clinton signed the Bill on July 15 and said: "We need to make sure that our sanctions policy furthers our foreign policy goals without imposing undue burden on our farmers."15

The second outcome was the Senate decision—one day after Clinton signed the Bill exempting farm products from the purview of sanctions—to support a measure giving the US President power to waive most of the sanctions under the Glenn Amendment. A week earlier, Assistant Secretary of State Inderfurth had pleaded before the Senate on the need to make the sanctions law more flexible with a promise that the implementation of the new legislation would hinge on India and Pakistan changing their ways. He said that the US wants both the countries to "conduct no further nuclear tests; sign and ratify the CTBT immediately and without conditions; refrain from deploying nuclear weapons; participate constructively in negotiations towards a fissile material cut-off treaty; formalize existing policies not to export weapons of mass destruction and missile technology and equipment; and resume direct dialogue to address the root causes of tension between them, including Kashmir."16

There is no doubt that Inderfurth in his statement was spelling out the outer-line of the American bargaining position. He was aware of the position of India and Pakistan as well. India would not only like to be recognised as a de jure nuclear weapon power but also would not like to link the Kashmir issue with the nuclear issue, among several other demands. He rightly told the Senate Sub-committee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs that the steps outlined by him "are not demands" and that "New Delhi and Islamabad will have to assess them in the light of their own national security requirements."17 The negotiations are going on over these issues between India and the United States. A sort of quiet diplomacy is at work with the Prime Minister's special envoy Jaswant Singh and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot having concluded three rounds of confidential meetings. The fourth round is likely to be held at Washington in August 1998. Such quiet diplomacy has its own usefulness. As US Ambassador Richard Celeste has observed: "I think a lot of diplomacy was done in the headlines rather than in direct diplomatic communications. As much as I respect the freedom of the Press, I believe there is a time for quiet, old-fashioned diplomacy and now is a good time for that."18 Defence Minister George Fernandes has become more upbeat about the possible outcome of the fourth round of talks between Talbot and Singh. He has said that the US would ease sanctions and accord nuclear weapon state status to India.19

Whatever may be the outcome of the talks, it is unlikely that the dark clouds over Indo-US relations caused by the nuclear tests by India would disappear soon. The visit to the subcontinent by the members of the Senate Task Force on sanctions, the rethinking by the State Department on the issue, the articulation of the point that the idea is not to punish the Indian people, etc. are welcome developments. But ultimately, the US approach towards technology transfer, scientific collaboration, Pakistan and China are the key issues that would determine the state of the relationship between the two countries. India and the United States have had one of the largest collaboration efforts in science and technology. But the US has come to be perceived in India as a power that has not only started to discourage scientific collaboration with Indian scientists but also as one which seeks to deny India the fruits of its own scientific achievements. The sanctions imposed on India over the cryogenic rocket engine deal with Russia and the latest US decision to deny visas to Indian scientists and deport Indian scientists working in the US establishments have strengthened such a perception and have generated a certain amount of anti-Americanism in the country.

Washington's approach to Pakistan's non-indigenous nuclear and missile development efforts and close US-China relations despite Sino-Pak cooperation in weapons of mass destruction programmes are in stark contrast to its approach towards India's largely indigenous nuclear programme. It gives the impression that the US, China and Pakistan are one in opposing the emergence of India as a powerful nation on the global stage. The Clinton Administration's current tilt towards Islamabad is reflected in the quick pace at which the Bill exempting agricultural items from sanctions was made into law. Since Pakistan's economy is in a terrible state, Washington's effort is first directed at helping Pakistan. In other words, Islamabad is going to be rewarded for its nuclear tests in a way that would not make it a bigger sufferer than India. It is an old idea of equating India with Pakistan. As Inderfurth argued: "We also would like additional flexibility to guard against an overwhelming disproportionate effect of the sanctions on one country versus the other; ideally, the sanctions should have roughly the same effect on Pakistan as they do on India."20

Less than two months after the Indian nuclear tests, Clinton travelled to China. While reinforcing economic and security relations with that country, including a deal on nuclear cooperation, Clinton issued a joint statement with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The joint statement condemned the nuclear tests in South Asia and said: "We have agreed to continue to work closely together...to prevent an accelerating nuclear and missile arms race in South Asia...."21 Washington knows very well that China is part of the problems in the region. Yet it made common cause with China. Significantly, Secretary of State Albright certified China's good behaviour by saying that Beijing had moved forward in pledging to halt missile cooperation with Pakistan.22 It is a well known fact around the world that China is good at making promises, the US in believing such Chinese pledges and then discovering that the Chinese actions were quite different from what they had promised to do. It is true that there is no consensus in the United States over the country's China policy. There are lovers of China in the US and there are people affected by Sinophobia too. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Clinton Administration's approach towards China has adverse implications for India.

The US policy of softness towards Pakistan, closer defence and security cooperation with China and hardline position over the Indian nuclear tests would pose considerable hurdles in restoration of normal ties between India and the US. Clearly, it will take quite some time before the dark clouds over Indo-US relations are removed by the fresh wind of friendly cooperation.



1. Karl F. Inderfurth, "Situation in India," Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Sub-committee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, May 13, 1998, Washington D.C.

2. Cable News Network (CNN), Internet Web site, June 18, 1998.

3. "Private Experts Stress Importance of India-Pakistan Sanctions," Wireless File, USIS, June 18, 1998.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Economic Times, June 17, 1998.

7. For details, see Chintamani Mahapatra, "American Approach to Sino-Pakistan Nuclear Cooperation," Strategic Analysis, January 1998.

8. Reuters News Media, On-line, April 7, 1998.

9. The Hindu, April 24, 1998.

10. Harbaksh Singh, "India to Match Pak, China Missile Power," United Press International, On-line, April 15, 1998.

11. Alan S. Krass, The United States and Arms Control: The Challenge of Leadership (Westport, Connecticut, London: Praeger, 1997), p. 1.

12. "Jagdish Bhagwati Trashes US estimates of Curb Effects," May 25, 1998, see Chronology of Indian Reactions, World Response and Pakistani Bomb, Economic Times, Internet edition.

13. "Fact Sheet: India and Pakistan Sanctions," Wireless File, June 18, 1998.

14. "Clinton Unhappy with 'Sanction-happy' US," Ibid., June 20, 1998.

15. "Clinton Allows US Wheat Sales to India and Pakistan," Reuters, On-line, Internet, July 15, 1998.

16. Statement by Karl Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sub-committee on Near Eastern and South Asain Affairs, July 13, 1998, Official Text, United States Information Service, New Delhi, July 14, 1998.

17. Ibid.

18. See US Ambassador Richard Celeste's detailed interview in Economic Times, June 22, 1998.

19. Hindustan Times, July 26, 1998.

20. Inderfurth, n. 8.

21. For the text of the joint statement by Clinton and Zemin, see The Hindu, June 28, 1998.

22. The Hindu, June 29, 1998.