Nuclear Summer: Revisiting U.S. Policy Towards India After Pokhran II
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Nuclear Summer: Revisiting U.S. Policy Towards India After Pokhran II

By Priyanjali Simon
Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, India

Nuclear Summer: Revisiting U.S. Policy Towards India After Pokhran II

May 11 will mark 23 years of non-use of nuclear weapons since India’s nuclear tests were conducted in 1998. The summer of 1998 has been one of the most consequential years, as it contoured South Asian security, prompted a global uproar, and changed the trajectory of the India-United States (U.S.) bilateral relations. The rationale behind testing five nuclear weapons in Pokhran on May 11, and May 13, ranged from the strategic to the political. India’s nuclear tests undoubtedly assuaged criticism among the global community, most notably; by the U.S. and New Delhi’s regional neighbors; Pakistan and China. The relationship since the tests has seen complexity and witnessed unfriendly rhetoric.

The U.S. viewed these tests as a significant setback in non-proliferation efforts. The nuclear tests conducted by India and later Pakistan, within the same month put the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in retrograde. India’s call for a test ban was initially clamorous, and wanted to stay true to its test ban heritage, however by the time negotiations on signing the CTBT were around the corner, problems in the neighborhood led to India’s aversion towards signing the CTBT in 1996. India anticipated that there would be pushback and criticism from the U.S., but decided to carry on with the series of nuclear tests anyway.

While the U.S. had already made nuclear non-proliferation a central node in its foreign policy aspirations brought in by the end of the Cold War; the Clinton administration fervently took up the issue with its “cap, roll back and eliminate” policy towards nuclear capabilities in South Asia. President Bill Clinton reiterated that the tests challenged and threatened stability in the region, and American experts characterize the tests as a “great wave of proliferation”. Moreover, the fact that India did not provide any prior notification of the tests, took the U.S. administration by surprise and felt that there was an element of duplicity involved, especially since the tests were incognito. Perhaps, what propelled such a critical response from the U.S. was also that its core policy of non-proliferation (which was set in motion by the Reagan administration and eventually pushed forward by Bush Sr. administration) was now faced with a diplomatic obstacle accompanied by India’s sustained stance on practicing strategic autonomy, carried on from the Cold War years where it followed a path of non-alignment. India was well on the receiving end of condemnation by the U.S. through the Glenn Amendment sanctions, which was more symbolic than pragmatic. The economic sanctions imposed by Washington failed to impede the Indian economy, as it lacked hefty termination of aid and assistance, which seemed manageable for New Delhi at the time.

Following the U.S.’s disappointment over the nuclear tests; tables turned in India’s favor when Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott began holding talks with India’s Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh. This marked a transformative period in the India-U.S. bilateral relationship. The strategic dialogues between the two countries signaled that the U.S. recognized India as a potential strategic partner in South Asia, and acknowledged India as a rising power. Several rounds of talks were held between the two officials over the next two years until it finally culminated in President Bill Clinton visiting India in 2000. At that time, the Presidential visit held great significance as this was the first visit by a U.S. President after more than two decades. Clinton’s visit signified the burgeoning of India-U.S. relations that set the tone for renewed vigor and engagement. When the U.S. reached out to New Delhi, the administration realized that it had to extend its accommodation to India. A report of an independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brooking Institute urges the U.S. foreign policy decision-makers not to sacrifice their interest in South Asia and think through its response. The report articulates that the U.S. has strategic interests in both; India and Pakistan. If effectively nurtured, it could pave the way for regional stability, encourage nuclear non-proliferation through diplomacy, expand economic growth, trade, and investment between the Americans and the two South Asian countries. It further adds that broad economic sanctions could potentially harm U.S. policy in South Asia. Despite India not signing the CTBT, which was one of the four benchmarks laid down in the initial rounds of talks; the two democracies began embracing each other. The pertinent question remains - What caused a sudden change in attitude between the two countries to embrace engagement? Several factors contributed to this transformation, but it was the geopolitical milieu that lent great significance to an understanding between Washington and New Delhi.

Firstly, the Clinton administration sought engagement and expansion of market-based economies, and India’s economic liberalization in 1991 could yield domestic dividends. The administration realized that globalization was pivotal in building the American economy, and acknowledged that India would soon take on the mantle of an emerging powerhouse in the region. Secondly, the U.S. was mindful of China’s emergence as a great power, and although hostilities did not brew in. But, there were still challenges to the relationship at the time, such as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Ironically, New Delhi’s nuclear tests that created widespread dissatisfaction within the U.S. Congress also led to a continuing dialogue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot and Indian Foreign Minister; Jaswant Singh. The nuclear tests precipitated into series of high-level bilateral talks in the history of India-U.S. relations. For the first time, there was a mutual attempt to understand and find a structure that would work for both countries, independent of Indo-Russia and Indo-Pakistan concerns. A new relationship blossomed as the issue of India refusing to sign the CTBT faded into the background. Positive developments led to the warmest ties since the Indo-China War of 1962. In many ways, the India-U.S. relationship post-Pokhran II experienced a rocky start. But, it evolved into a strategic relationship, which sowed the seeds of amicable bilateral ties that continue to this day.


The nuclear dimension of India-U.S. ties has evolved significantly. In 1998, estrangement was the label used to define the relationship between the two democracies. However, in the contemporary context, India retaining its identity as a nuclear weapons state has seen relatively reduced resistance from Washington. This does not mean that Washington no longer holds nuclear non-proliferation a priority. While the civil nuclear deal signed in 2008 between the two countries, making it possible for India to be part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; the terms were still straitjacketed. This final measure accompanied by India's completion of a Separation Plan and the signing of an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as the U.S. administration's modification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act; unveils Washington’s cautious optimism with India. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin has raised concerns over India and Russia’s S-400 deal and there have been warnings of U.S. sanctions. The nuclear prism will forever plague the India-U.S. relationship and there has been a degree of sensitivity attached to it. India’s nuclear aspirations will be a perennial dilemma for current and future U.S. administrations and will be a quandary of balancing America’s clarion call for global nuclear non-proliferation and risk losing leverage in South Asia through its strategic partnership with New Delhi.

About the Author

Priyanjali Simon (ORCID: 0000-0001-7134-2671) is a research intern at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies. She holds a Master's Degree in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education (Karnataka).

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