Last week, the United States decided to move India from its Strategic Trade Authorization 2 to 1 category. By so doing it eased impediments to the sale of hi-tech defence and civilian space related equipment, products and technologies. This constitutes a significant move to further upgrade Indo-US ties. It provides a positive backdrop to the 2+2 meeting between the two countries which is scheduled to be held in New Delhi on September 6 when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will together meet their US counterparts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis. Its importance, however, goes beyond a single engagement for it signals US will to inter alia overcome obstacles that may be put by China in the path of India-US cooperation in technology and defence. As India is not a member of the NSG the US had to make an exception to its rules. Naturally, it is also a US message to India of the its desire to deepen ties. On its part India has to be aware these overtures are also in the context of the developing situation Indo-Pacific region.
As the US measure is of a technical nature relating to its export control regime a clarification is warranted.
The treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) of 1968 prescribed that only those states that had tested a nuclear device before January 1, 1968 could possess nuclear weapons. Only five countries—US, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China fell in this category. India refused to join the treaty because it was discriminatory and Pakistan did not do so because India did not. India tested nuclear devise in 1974 but did not begin a nuclear weapons programme. The US and its European allies wanted to retard India's nuclear ambitions and so gradually began a technology denial process that developed through the next decades into international regimes. An NPT membership became a pre-requisite to avail of technology especially of a dual nature. This put obstacles for the growth of nuclear, space and defence industries though Indian scientists were in great measure able to overcome them.
By the 1990s four regimes were established to prevent the spread of technologies that could contribute to development of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. These were the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Australia Group which focussed on chemicals and biological agents, and the Wassenar Arrangement for conventional weapons. India's nuclear tests of 1998 initially invited sanctions and a tightening of scrutiny by members of all these regimes. However, over the years as India's political and economic clout increased the world powers realised that it would be futile to keep it out of the mainstream of technology and hi-tech product flows. Importantly, India also demonstrated right through the past seven decades and more so since its tests that it was a responsible power both in acquiring hi-tech and in preventing its proliferation.
Thus, over the past two years India has become a member of MTCR, the Wassenar Arrangement and the Australia group. Member countries of these regimes made exceptions for India where required. In these regimes China is not a member. The NSG is a different matter for China, a member of the NSG, is opposed to India for it has not signed the NPT. China also wants that if an exception is made for India it should apply to Pakistan too. However, Pakistan's track record both in the manner it acquired nuclear technology and proliferated through the A Q Khan network prevents NSG members from making an exception in its case. Thus, India's NSG membership is unlikely to come through early but the US through its recent step has conveyed that that bilateral hi-tech cooperation will take place even though India is not still a member of the NSG. Earlier the group had made an exception for India to permit the Indo-US nuclear deal to take place. That exception has permitted India's continuing civil nuclear cooperation with many countries.
Technology flows from outside should not make India complacent. There is no substitute for becoming a producer of hi-tech. The lessons of India's subjugation to colonialism demand a full and determined national focus both in the government and in the private sector for this high task. Sadly, as matters stand there is insufficient action on this front. The make-in-India programme cannot be limited to manufacturing alone; it will achieve its purpose if what is made is based on Indian technology and processes. And this is while China marches ahead in its hi-tech quest.
There is no altruism in international relations. Countries act to safeguard and promote national interests. There is no doubt that the US would like India to take US core interests into account while taking decisions. On its part there is no way that India can give up its strategic autonomy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's approaches to Russia and China amply indicate his commitment to maintain it. Hence, India has to search for areas where Indian and US interest coincide and seek to undertake diplomatic navigation where they do not. A number of bilateral, regional and global issues will now need skilful handling. Among these are purchases of defence systems from countries other than the US, trade, Iran, among others. Ultimately, if the US does not show understanding difficulties may arise but they will have to be taken in the stride for a compromise of strategic autonomy will damage India.