Rice calls Indian deal a key to Asia strategy

Posted in United States | 06-Apr-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies on Capitol Hill before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
WASHINGTON Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress on Wednesday that a nuclear cooperation agreement with India was designed to cement a strategic relationship with a rising Asian giant and warned that if the pact were rejected then "all the hostility and suspicion of the past would be redoubled."

Rice, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vigorously defended the deal, which calls for the United States to cooperate with India's civilian nuclear energy program and for India to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs, placing civilian aspects under international safeguards.

Meeting a mixture of skepticism and cautious support, Rice warned that if the plan were defeated or fundamentally altered, it would "hand the enemies of this new relationship a great victory."

"We would slide backward," she said.

The initiative, sealed March 2 when President George W. Bush met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, embraces several important Bush administration goals: seeking to strengthen relations with the world's most populous democracy, potentially bolstering India as a counterweight to China, and lessening global energy competition by helping India generate more nuclear energy.

But it would also require changes in U.S. law and mean the reversal of nearly 30 years of anti-proliferation policy. Some critics say it would reward a country that refused to sign the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

While many senators told Rice that they supported administration goals, several questioned whether this approach might actually subvert them, making it harder to persuade Iran and North Korea to curb their nuclear ambitions.

Rice called the initiative a "strategic achievement" and described India as 'a "natural partner" - a stable, transparent democracy with a dynamic economy. Without referring specifically to concerns about China, she said that India could "be a pillar of stability in a rapidly changing Asia." Responding to criticisms by senators of both parties, Rice said it was not realistic to hope that India might accept a unilateral freeze on its nuclear arsenal.

"We raised this with the Indians," she said, who replied that the "regional realities" in a neighborhood where Pakistan and China had nuclear arsenals prevented any such limits.

Still, she said, civil nuclear cooperation with India "will not lead to an arms race in South Asia." Rice insisted that nothing the United States or other nuclear suppliers would furnish to India would "enhance its military capacity."

Of assertions that the deal with India would complicate efforts to curb Iranian or North Korean nuclear ambitions, she said the comparison was "simply not credible." While both of those countries had violated international nuclear obligations, India was placing its civilian program under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The committee chairman, Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana - a respected figure on proliferation issues, remained guarded. "We have only scratched the surface of this intricate agreement and the national security questions it has raised," he said.

Still, Lugar hinted that concerns about global energy competition had him leaning toward the deal.

Energy competition, he said, "is the source presently of potential conflict as great as the nonproliferation danger."

For now, India, not a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, cannot legally receive U.S. nuclear technology. Assuming it obtains the congressional backing it seeks, the Bush administration would seek to persuade its allies to allow an exception for India to guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. That would allow other countries, too, to carry on nuclear business with India.

Britain, France and Russia, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency, have endorsed the initiative, Rice said.

India would also have to negotiate terms of safeguards for its civilian program with the energy agency.

Several senators expressed discomfort at being asked to approve a complicated deal when parts of it would only be completed later.

"You're not in a position today," said Senator Paul Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, "to spell out for us what the safeguard regime will be?"

"That's correct," Rice replied. But she said the accord would not take effect until the president had found the agreement between India and the UN agency acceptable.

Sarbanes eventually said that he was frustrated, but "sympathetic" to the administration's goals.

Senator Barbara Boxer of California, Democrat of California, questioned the idea of an Indian counterweight to China, which she called "outdated and dangerous," saying, "It doesn't appear to me that India has any interest in being a hedge against China, and I believe it's naive to think otherwise."