India as Strategic Partner

As expected, the big winner of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, which just passed the House and might be approved by the Senate as early as today, is France. Actually, that’s just a catchy lede, because the agreement signed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Indian PM Manmohan Singh yesterday in Paris is simply the French equivalent of the American “1-2-3 Agreement.” The actual contracts between Areva and India have yet to be signed (although I’d be surprised if there aren’t any rough drafts already circulating). They would eventually need EU approval as per the Euratom Treaty [Update: Looks like Sarkozy already took care of that], but on a national level, given that the distinction between the French state and the French atomic energy industry is largely a legal fiction, this is an area where the French (and Russian) executive enjoys a significant negotiating advantage over the American president.

In effect, the U.S. did the heavy lifting to get the IAEA and Nuclear Suppliers Group to lift the bans on nuclear trade with India, with very little guarantee that it will win out in the ensuing feeding frenzy. As the NY Times editorialized on Monday, there are other foundations on which the U.S. might have tried to solidify the U.S.-India strategic partnership. But I think this shows the way that India has become too coveted a strategic partner to try to relegate it to “client state” status. The Russians, for instance, have offered New Delhi a joint weapons development deal, as opposed to simple procurement contracts, in an effort to remain India’s primary arms provider. As Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov put it:

Particular attention in this new program will be paid to scientific research and joint development and construction. . . [C]oncrete steps will be undertaken to achieve transition relations from vendor and buyer to partnership.

The challenge will increasingly be how to integrate this trend into the delicate balance needed to manage the India-Pakistan rivalry, which if not handled carefully could very possibly turn into a bloc rivalry pitting India and the West against Pakistan and China. Sealing a strategic partnership is one thing. Identifying a strategy is another.

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