Globalist: Nuclear deal with India a sign of new U.S. focus

Posted in United States | 04-Mar-06 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

US President George W. Bush (L) walks along with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) before a joint press conference at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi.

The cementing through nuclear cooperation of a "strategic partnership" between the United States and India represents a gamble typical of President George W. Bush and a shift in American foreign policy priorities of enormous significance.

Whether the gamble proves bold or reckless remains to be seen. What is already clear is that, beyond Iraq, American diplomatic energy is no longer focused on Europe, its central concern for the second half of the 20th century, but on the explosive growth of Asia driven by the emergence of India and China.

Confronted by this twin challenge, the United States has now made clear it is prepared to make an exception of India in order to draw it closer. Bush has ended the nuclear pariah status of India despite the fact the country is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In a proliferation- plagued world, that is an extraordinary step.

It will not have been lost on China. R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, said in a telephone interview: "We have never seen India as a counter to China. It stands on its own and we do not draw that linkage."

India has its own fast-developing economic relationship with China and does not want to be seen as a pawn in a Washington-Beijing game. Burns's message will be well received in New Delhi.

Still, Bush's push to transform the relationship between the world's most powerful and most populous democracies into a strategic alliance locked in by intense military, nuclear, scientific and agricultural cooperation amounts to an overarching response to the expansion of Chinese influence in Asia.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, responded to the agreement between Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India by saying that any pact "must meet the requirements and provisions of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the obligations undertaken by all countries concerned."

That's Chinese grumpiness dressed up in formal demands. The fact is the nuclear nonproliferation regime has been transformed - many would say devalued - by the agreement allowing India to buy nuclear fuel and reactor components from the United States and other countries in return for separating its civilian and military nuclear facilities and permitting international inspection of the former.

Therein lies the heart of Bush's gamble: He has wagered that it is worth undermining the nuclear treaty, even as the West tries to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program, in order to secure Indian help in increasing "mutual security against the common threats posed by intolerance, terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction," as a joint statement put it.

That looks contradictory. How can emptying the nuclear treaty of meaning help stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction? But the treaty and reality have long been at odds - nobody has any illusions about Israeli nuclear weapons - and Bush has clearly taken a hard look at the facts.

India has been a known nuclear power for more than three decades, ever since it conducted a nuclear explosion in 1974, a move followed by a test of atomic weapons in 1998. Over that period it has never, unlike Pakistan, been a source of proliferation, nor has there been any international access to a program run by the much revered "nuclear maharajahs" of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy.

Now, India has agreed to classify 14 of its nuclear power reactors as civilian facilities, opening them up to inspection. The others, and a fast-breeder reactor in development, will remain closed military facilities. That India will go on making nuclear weapons is clear.

"Our conclusion was that India should be an exception," Burns said. "It has not been a proliferator of nuclear technology. For 30 years, we've had zero transparency. Now we will have well over half open to supervision and safeguard."

But of course having 65 percent of a program opened to international oversight still leaves 35 percent without it. The heart of the American calculation is not reining India in; it is bringing an ever more powerful India alongside.

The economic and strategic benefits could indeed be enormous. Bush still needs the approval of Congress, where opposition will be stiff, and the agreement will also require the nod of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, the international body that regulates the transfer of nuclear technology.

These are significant hurdles. But if they can be overcome, the provision to an energy-hungry India of civilian nuclear energy would open a large and lucrative market. It could also, as President Jacques Chirac of France has recognized, reduce the Indian appetite for oil and offer environmental benefits.

That is important but not the heart of the matter. Bush will now count on India to support his nonproliferation efforts, including in Iran, where India has influence.

He will be looking to India for intelligence and even military support in the war against terrorism. He will be counting on America's fastest- growing export market becoming a strategic partner in the full sense of that term.

Unless he gets all this, his gamble may prove expensive. China is not happy. Pakistan will have to be reassured in the form of unstinting American support. Domestic critics will argue a dangerous precedent has been set by legitimizing India as a nuclear power outside the nonproliferation treaty.

But the foundations of a powerful and effective American-Indian alliance are strong: democratic values within multiethnic states, entrepreneurial cultures, the English language, the presence of more Indian students in the United States than any other nationality, more than two million Indian-Americans, huge investments and a growing web of business, scientific and technological interests.

Bush to India is not quite Nixon to China, but this agreement marks a turning-point. The long Cold War frostiness of Indian-American relations was an anomaly. The thaw began under President Bill Clinton. Through Bush's deal with India, made at the cost of the formal weakening of the nuclear treaty, Bush has turned a thaw into an embrace that will serve America, India and democracy well.