So far Canada has remained on the sidelines as India and the United States negotiate a new set of nuclear co-operation arrangements, but that can't last.
Not only has this country figured prominently, if unwillingly, in five decades of Indian nuclear weapons development, but Ottawa will soon have to cast its vote on the deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) - a deal, if unchanged, that could end up supporting India's nuclear weapons program and compromise broader non-proliferation objectives.
Current rules preclude nuclear co-operation with India because it has never joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and it operates nuclear programs that are not under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards -- in other words, weapons programs. The U.S. and India argue that it is time to face the reality that will not soon go away -- namely India's nuclear arsenal -- and to allow co-operation with India's civilian nuclear power development and to engage India in non-proliferation efforts.
Civilian nuclear co-operation with India would probably find support at the Nuclear Suppliers Group if it could be shown to produce non-proliferation gains, but as now proposed the deal will and should meet strong resistance.
The primary concern was outlined in a 2006 report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, based at Princeton University. It argued that Indian access to foreign sources of uranium for its civilian programs would allow India to funnel all its domestic supplies into an expanded military program.
All told, under the changed rules, India could accumulate enough plutonium for an arsenal of more than 300 nuclear warheads within a decade -- an arsenal to rival or exceed those of the United Kingdom, France, or China.
The 45 states of the NSG will have to approve whatever deal the U.S. and India finally reach (the basic deal has already been approved by the U.S. Congress, but the two countries are now hammering out the details). And since the NSG operates by consensus, every voice counts.
In fact, Canada's voice has some extra political weight. Canada supplied India its first heavy water nuclear reactor, the CIRUS, during the 1950s, exclusively for "peaceful purposes."
But over the protestations of Canada, the CIRUS nevertheless became the source of the weapons grade plutonium used to build and detonate India's first nuclear warhead in 1974.
Since then the CIRUS and the larger Indian-built Dhruva reactor, based on the CIRUS design, have supplied most of the weapons grade plutonium for India's current arsenal believed, to include about 50 warheads and plutonium for another 50.
So, as a supplier of nuclear technology and uranium, and with a recognized stake in ending the use of Canadian-origin technology for nuclear weapons, Canada comes to the NSG table as a key player.
If Ottawa decides to use that influence to hold out for a net proliferation benefit, two places to start are India's approach to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the production of fissile material for weapons purposes.
The CTBT has been agreed but it won't come into force until it is ratified by all nuclear weapon states and all states with nuclear reactors -- a list that obviously includes India.
The draft deal stipulates U.Ss bilateral civilian nuclear co-operation with India will end if India tests another nuclear device. India is currently resisting that condition, but it should be made stronger. At a minimum it should be extended and multilateralized to make CTBT ratification by India, not just a suspension of testing, a precondition for civilian nuclear co-operation.
Even though India already has enough fissile material to meet the requirements of its declared "minimum deterrence" doctrine, and even though it has declared its support for negotiations toward a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), India appears determined to use civilian nuclear co-operation as a means of increasing fissile material production for weapons purposes while the treaty negotiations to ban such production drag on -- assuming they ever get started.
Canada has already said that "the deal would have been more positive if the United States had obtained an Indian commitment to freeze production of fissile material for nuclear weapons."
It is a mild statement that nevertheless embodies a key principle -- that is, civilian nuclear co-operation with India should be conditional on a verifiable freeze on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes until an FMCT that converts such a freeze into a permanent ban takes effect.
Canada is not a marginal player in all this. With others, it is in a position to set conditions - and at least two of these should be ratification and adherence to the CTBT and a verifiable freeze on production of fissile material for weapons purposes. It's Ottawa's time to stand and be counted.