New Life for the India Nuclear Pact

A test of an Indian ballistic missile in May.
A test of an Indian ballistic missile in May. (India Defense Ministry Via Associated Press)
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By Bill Emmott
Monday, July 7, 2008

Less than a month ago, unnamed U.S. officials hit the front page of the Financial Times by indicating that the U.S.-India nuclear pact was "almost certainly dead." This past weekend the corpse suddenly twitched back to life, thanks to sharp political maneuvering by India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his Congress Party. Now, the deal will almost certainly be signed by India's government -- putting the onus back on the United States to get it implemented.

For that to happen, Congress must stop trying to use the deal as leverage to force India to back the U.S. line on Iran. And the Bush administration, as well as Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, should produce plans for a U.S.-led revamping of the world's anti-proliferation rules. Such U.S. leadership would be greatly assisted by the sort of grand gesture of nuclear arms reduction recently proposed by Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and others.

The U.S.-India nuclear deal is that rare thing, a foreign policy move by the Bush administration that could look strategically smart to future historians. Signed in 2005, the deal sought to bring an end to four decades of hostility and suspicion between the United States and India and, crucially, almost a decade of semi-isolation imposed on India after it shocked the world by testing nuclear weapons in 1998.

The pact built on moves begun by President Bill Clinton, notably his path-breaking visit to India in 2000, the first by a U.S. president in 22 years. But it took a big further stride by offering India access to civil nuclear power technology and, crucially, nuclear fuel, without it having to sign the global agreement accepted by other nuclear fuel importers -- the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The deal thus makes a huge exception of India, endorsing its status as a nuclear-weapons state and granting it a more lenient regime of inspections of its nuclear power facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency than is normal. Why? The answer is China.

Neither the U.S. nor the Indian government wants to say so, but the basic reason to make India an exception and to bring it closer to the United States is the desire to balance the rising power of China in Asia.

Such a balance is in both countries' clear interests. Yet until now the three-year-old deal has been held up by India's complicated politics. Prime Minister Singh's government lacks a parliamentary majority and has relied on communist parties' votes to govern. Those parties are instinctively anti-American and have threatened to bring down the government if it proceeded with the nuclear deal.

At long last, Singh and his party leader, Sonia Gandhi, have summoned the nerve to dump the communists and get support instead from a small regional group representing low castes and Muslims. The Samajwadi Party is losing ground in its state, Uttar Pradesh, to another low-caste party and needs help. With national elections due by next May, both Singh and the Samajwadi Party felt they had little to lose by working together -- and much to gain.

That decision deserves to be rewarded by a strong American effort to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency and the members of the global "nuclear suppliers group" to endorse the deal, and then by a rapid ratification in the final session of Congress this year.

The first of those efforts would be greatly assisted by bipartisan U.S. declarations that the NPT needs revamping and that every effort will be made to reform it in the coming years to bring in new nuclear powers such as India. The second would be assisted by senior members of Congress displaying a more realistic attitude toward India's ties with Iran.

Support for a closer U.S. relationship with India is now bipartisan. But that happy picture is blurred by concern that India is unhelpfully friendly with Iran, wanting to buy its gas and to receive official visits from its Holocaust-denying president.

Using the nuclear deal to try to force India to align with the U.S. policy on Iran would be a big mistake. Thanks to its colonial history, India is fiercely protective of its autonomy; it is never going to sign up for a full Japanese-style alliance with the United States. Trying to force it to toe the U.S. line on Iran, to be "either with us or against us," would be letting the best be the enemy of the good.

Bill Emmott, editor in chief of The Economist from 1993 to 2006, is the author of "Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade."


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