U.S. approves nuclear treaty with India

Posted in United States , India | 02-Oct-08 | Author: Peter Baker| Source: International Herald Tribune

US President George W. Bush (right) with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Oval Office of the White House on September 25, 2008 in Washington.

WASHINGTON: The United States opened a new chapter of cooperation with India on Wednesday night as Congress gave final approval to a breakthrough agreement permitting civilian nuclear trade between the two countries for the first time in three decades.

The Senate ratified the deal 86 to 13 a week after the House passed it, handing a rare foreign policy victory to President George W. Bush in the twilight of his administration and culminating a three-year debate that raised alarms about a new arms race and nearly toppled the government of India.

The agreement, in the view of its authors, will redefine relations between two countries often at odds during the cold war and build up India as a friendly counterweight to a rising China. But critics complain it effectively scraps longstanding policies designed to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and could encourage nations like Pakistan, Iran and North Korea to accelerate their own programs outside international legal structures.

Under the terms of the deal, the United States will now be able to sell nuclear fuel, technology and reactors to India for peaceful energy use despite the fact that New Delhi tested bombs in 1974 and 1998 and never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In exchange, India agreed to open up 14 civilian nuclear facilities to international inspection, but would continue to shield eight military reactors from outside scrutiny.

The agreement would allow the United States to sell nuclear fuel and technology to India for peaceful energy use, even though the country, which tested bombs in 1974 and 1998, never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To secure the deal, India agreed to open up its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspection, but will continue to shield eight military nuclear reactors from any outside scrutiny.

In the view of its advocates, the agreement would usher in a new era of cooperation between two countries that were often at odds through the cold war and help build India up as a friendly counterweight to a rising China. But critics warned that it could also encourage a regional arms race and prompt other nations, like Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, to accelerate their own nuclear programs outside international legal structures.

As debate opened on the Senate floor on Wednesday, supporters cast the agreement in geopolitical terms, portraying it as the foundation for closer ties with New Delhi.

"The national security and economic future of the United States would be enhanced by a strong and enduring partnership with India," said Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. "With a well-educated overall middle class that is larger than the entire United States population, India can be an anchor of stability in Asia and an engine of economic growth."

Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, called the deal a "grievous mistake" that would reward rogue behavior. "We have said to India with this agreement: 'You can misuse American nuclear technology and secretly develop nuclear weapons.' That's what they did. 'You can test these weapons.' That's what they did."

He added: "And after testing, 10 years later, all will be forgiven."

Dorgan and Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, tried to amend the agreement by explicitly requiring the United States to cut off nuclear trade if India ever conducted a new nuclear test. Backers of the agreement argued that such a move was unnecessary and that nuclear trade would certainly be halted in such a circumstance.

Bush has been pursuing the agreement for three years, and advisers have said closer American-Indian relations would prove to be a key part of his foreign policy legacy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India visited Bush at the White House just last week in hopes of pushing the matter to finality before the president leaves office.

Sitting next to Bush in the Oval Office last Thursday, Singh hailed what he called the "massive transformation of India-United States relations" in recent years. "When history is written," he added, "I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush made an historic goal in bringing our two democracies closer to each other."

But the nuclear accord has proven even more controversial at home for Singh than for Bush. Opposition parties have tried to topple Singh's government and the Communist Party dropped out of his governing coalition in protest of the deal, but the prime minister survived a confidence vote.

The dispute was worsened again last month by a State Department letter to Congress saying the United States could immediately halt nuclear sales to India in case of any new nuclear tests, triggering accusations that Singh had lied about the deal.

Foreign Secretary Shivshanker Menon told reporters last week that "we have the right to test and they have the right to react."