Correction to This Article
A Feb. 23 article on President Bush's upcoming trip to India and Pakistan incorrectly said that it would be the first trip to the two countries by a U.S. president since 1998. President Bill Clinton made such a trip in 2000.

Bush Seeks India's Cooperation

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

Days before he leaves for South Asia, President Bush publicly urged India yesterday to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs to pave the way for a new strategic alliance between Washington and New Delhi.

Bush agreed in July to give India access, for the first time, to civilian nuclear assistance, breaking with decades of U.S. nuclear policies. For the Bush administration, the deal was part of a long-term Asian strategy designed to accelerate India's rise as a global power and as a counterweight to China. The White House had hoped to finalize the accord next week when Bush becomes the first U.S. president to visit India and Pakistan since the two South Asian rivals conducted nuclear tests in 1998.

But a deal remains elusive and has faced criticism in Congress, which would need to change several laws before it could take effect. The principal concern, shared by congressional Republicans and Democrats, is that India will try to keep as many facilities as possible under military control, a move that could accelerate the country's nuclear weapons production and weaken attempts to safeguard nuclear materials.

India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, relying in part on imported civilian nuclear technology. It is one of only three countries, including Israel and Pakistan, that did not sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead it built a nuclear weapons program and lived without the additional civilian technology it needs to power a country with more than 1 billion people and a surging economy.

A cooperative energy deal with Washington could change that, but U.S. law forbids exporting nuclear materials to sites or facilities that are used for bombmaking. For Congress, the military-civilian separation plan is seen as a key indicator of whether New Delhi intends to use the deal to help its weapons production, or its energy sector.

Bush's comments yesterday suggested he was taking those concerns seriously.

"I'll continue to encourage India to produce a credible, transparent and defensible plan to separate its civilian and military programs,'' Bush said in a speech to the Asia Society. Such a plan would "strengthen the bonds of trust between our two great nations."

The Bush administration dispatched a team of senior negotiators and nuclear experts to New Delhi yesterday to press for a separation plan that would ease congressional concerns. Administration officials held out hope a plan could be completed before Bush's three-day visit ends and he departs for the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

But others cautioned against rushing to complete a military-civilian separation plan.

"If the Bush administration wants to demonstrate clearly that civil nuclear cooperation is not contributing to an increased Indian nuclear weapons capability, then it will have to be very demanding on the separation issue," said Robert Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until November 2001. "If it cuts unwarranted compromises, it will further erode the administration's credibility on nonproliferation issues in general" and make it tougher to deal with Iran and North Korea, he said.

Indian officials have offered three separation proposals over the last seven months, each of which fell short of U.S. expectations.

In December, Indian negotiators surprised their U.S. colleagues when they proposed keeping a majority of the facilities under military control. In particular, the Indians suggested to senior U.S. officials, including Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, the chief negotiator, that they wanted military control over fast-breeder reactors, at least until 2010. The reactors are in the experimental phase but will be able to produce enormous quantities of weapons-grade plutonium when fully operational.

"We've made significant progress, but the last part of any complex negotiation is the most challenging," Burns said in a telephone interview from New Delhi. "We'd like to have an agreement, but not at any cost."

Burns, who arrived in India yesterday, met with senior congressional officials before he left. He will meet again with Congress on his return to present any plan the sides may reach during the president's trip.

At a meeting last week of nuclear weapons experts, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, suggested that India's plans for the breeder reactor were evidence of "a greedy effort to try to have as much of a plutonium production capability for nuclear weapons as possible."

"India has to choose," Albright said. "Does it want nuclear weapons capabilities, or does it want international cooperation?"

The U.S.-India negotiations began quickly last summer, but over seven months they have been fraught with tensions and heated rhetoric on both sides.

During an appearance Tuesday at the National Press Club, India's ambassador to Washington suggested the deal was being "hijacked" by nonproliferation zealots. Ronen Sen said India's atomic weapons program would continue whether or not the deal went through, and he promised that no U.S. technology would be diverted to the weapons program.

His comments came several weeks after the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, David Mulford, stirred controversy when he suggested that the administration would kill the deal unless India voted to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council this month. India did vote with Washington and against Tehran, which is also a close ally of India, but Mulford's comments rocked the fragile negotiations and were viewed as insulting by some in India.

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