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U.S. Approach on India Has Some Crying Foul

Critics say the nuclear deal the White House seeks would threaten the nonproliferation treaty.

January 13, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — As the U.S. steps up pressure on Iran and North Korea to abandon suspected nuclear weapons programs, American officials are working to complete a deal with India that critics call a threat to nonproliferation efforts.

After discussing an accord on civil nuclear cooperation with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry said Thursday that congressional approval would depend on the success of negotiations in the coming days.

President Bush and Singh agreed in July at a Washington summit to resume nuclear cooperation in energy and other civilian fields even though India refuses to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Under the Atomic Energy Act, Bush needs congressional support to open the door to nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and India.

Former presidential hopeful Kerry, who sits on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he supported the deal in principle and called it "a very positive step forward." But the Massachusetts senator echoed concerns that it would allow India to keep producing the weapons-grade material it needs to build more nuclear bombs.

The U.S. led international moves to isolate India after it first tested a nuclear bomb in 1974, when India was a close ally of the Soviet Union. Sanctions were tightened when India and neighbor Pakistan carried out a series of tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

But the Sept. 11 attacks, and India's growing economic and military strength, have radically changed Washington's view of South Asia.

The Bush administration has moved quickly to forge a close "strategic partnership" with India, including accords for closer cooperation in high-tech fields such as spaceflight, satellites and missile defense.

Administration officials have sought to assure Congress that talks to work out details of the July agreement will help bring India into what lead U.S. negotiator R. Nicholas Burns called "the international nonproliferation mainstream."

Robert Joseph, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, has warned that Congress could kill the accord by "piling on conditions."

"It would be better to lock in this deal and then seek to achieve further results in subsequent nonproliferation discussions," he said.

Bush plans to visit India before spring, and he and Singh appear eager for a final agreement before then.

Congressional critics of the civil nuclear cooperation say Washington is damaging the decades-old nonproliferation system and giving up too much.

"We're kind of twisting these rules into a pretzel for India's sake," said Henry Sokolski, who was a senior nonproliferation official in the Defense Department from 1989 to 1993.

India has agreed to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its civilian nuclear facilities. But India will decide which are civilian, and any that are designated military will remain off-limits and free to make more weapons as the nation builds more sophisticated missiles to deliver them.

U.S. officials who have defended the agreement before Congress insist that it simply recognizes the reality of India as a nuclear-armed emerging power. But Sokolski and other critics suspect something else is behind the policy to quickly embrace India: a strategy to contain China.

American officials argue in private, Sokolski said, "that with China rising, you need to hitch your star to something else that is going up."

"It is a private argument that's being made behind closed doors, and in the vaguest of terms," he added. "Now, I'm not suggesting that India is hostile to China. They're not. But expectations can be raised, even with friends, that generate bad feelings."

China has already expressed its anger at the nuclear cooperation deal. The Communist Party newspaper People's Daily warned that the accord would "bring about a series of negative impacts."

"A domino effect of nuclear proliferation, once turned into reality, will definitely lead to global nuclear proliferation and competition," a Nov. 2 editorial said.

Though India refuses to stop producing weapons-grade nuclear material, it has a moratorium on testing. Kerry said Singh had assured him that India would sign a fissile material cutoff treaty if one was drawn up.

"The question is: Can you arrive at that" treaty, Kerry said. "That is something that I think is going to have a lot more visibility in the days ahead. A lot of people are going to want to look at where that reality may or may not be, and what can be done to address those concerns."

The Bush administration is also trying to persuade countries in the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group that it is sensible to lift a ban on nuclear trade with India.

India is believed to have 30 to 40 deployed nuclear warheads, and longtime enemy Pakistan has up to 50 nuclear weapons ready for use, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

China has an estimated 400 deployed weapons, according to the institute, which publishes an annual report on the world's militaries, the global arms trade and other security issues.

The U.S. has not offered Pakistan, which also refuses to sign the nonproliferation treaty, a deal on civil nuclear cooperation like the one with India. The tilt toward New Delhi worries the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, which is criticized by powerful Islamic parties and extremists for allying itself with Washington's war on terrorism.

Britain's Financial Times newspaper recently reported that Pakistan was in talks with China, its longtime ally, to buy six to eight nuclear reactors, starting as early as 2015.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry dismissed the report as "baseless."

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