- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Last week the Bush administration sent the largest trade mission in U.S. history to India, with 186 companies participating. According to the Commerce Department, medical, information technology, energy, and telecommunications companies were heavily represented. Earlier in the month, American officials pitched a major sale of fighter aircraft to New Delhi. Unfortunately, the major diplomatic initiative that opened the door for improved relations has not been implemented by Congress.

Last March, President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said at the time, “This deal is positive for United States national security interests because it will help us cement our strategic partnership with India, which is very important for our global interests.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, called the agreement, “the most important strategic diplomatic initiative undertaken by President Bush.” Yet, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified before the committee on April 5, Ranking Democrat (and next year’s chairman) Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware stated: “We must not assist India’s nuclear weapons program. … We must not undermine world support for the nuclear nonproliferation regime by saying that nuclear weapons are fine for our friends.” Yet this is exactly what the U.S. has done for the past 60 years, and must continue to do in the real world of global power politics.

The United States directly helped Great Britain’s nuclear weapons program during the Cold War. France developed an independent nuclear deterrent. And while this was often disquieting to American leaders, it was not considered a threat like the weapons deployed by Russia or China. Israel is believed to have nuclear arms, but Washington has rightly refused to consider this as the moral equivalent of an Iranian bomb.

The agreement with India does have nonproliferation elements. India will place all future civilian nuclear reactors, and 14 of its current 22 reactors, under control and inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It will also continue its moratorium on nuclear weapons tests. But it will not stop building nuclear weapons or the means to deliver them because of the dangerous geopolitical situation with which New Delhi must contend.

India sits between radical Islamic states to the west (Pakistan and Iran) and a rising China to the east, all of which have or are developing nuclear weapons. The agreement only covers peaceful, civilian cooperation. But knowledge and material cannot be isolated, which is the legitimate concern about Iran. So it must be accepted that India’s nuclear capabilities will be advanced across the board.

What the United States cannot afford to do is to treat India as a nation inferior in standing to China. In her testimony, Miss Rice made clear she understands: “India would never accept a unilateral freeze or cap on its nuclear arsenal. We raised this with the Indians, but the Indians said that its plans and policies must take into account regional realities. No one can credibly assert that India would accept what would amount to an arms-control agreement that did not include other key countries, like China and Pakistan.”

Wisdom is the ability to judge how things differ on their merits. On that basis, India is clearly not Iran or North Korea. India already has a fledgling nuclear arsenal and an expanding atomic energy program. India first conducted an underground nuclear test in 1974. It was prompted to pursue such a program by China’s entry into the nuclear club 10 years earlier. India then renounced development of weapons and as late as 1988 was still calling for U.N. talks to eliminate all nuclear arms. But the military buildups of China and its ally Pakistan heightened regional tensions. India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, bringing new U.S. sanctions against both countries, though the Clinton administration considered Pakistan, with its support for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Kashmir, more dangerous. The sanctions on New Delhi were lifted in 2001 as Mr. Bush wisely made improving U.S.-India relations a top priority.

Increasing instability in Pakistan, the temptation of Iranian oil and gas to an energy-hungry India, and the rising ambitions of China, all argue strongly for America being able to present itself as a reliable security and economic partner to India. Congressional foot-dragging undermines U.S. credibility. The creation of an arc of security along the Pacific Rim, anchored by India and Japan, deserves broad bi-partisan support.

Mr. Biden ended up co-sponsoring Mr. Lugar’s legislation to amend the Atomic Energy Act sufficiently to allow the U.S.-India agreement to go forward, while still forbidding any cooperation on nuclear weapons. That bill was passed by the Senate Nov. 16, but must still be reconciled with a less restrictive House version passed in July.

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has made final passage of the conference report a top priority of the lame-duck session. Having to start the legislative process over again next year would be a setback for this vital diplomatic initiative.

William Hawkins is Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

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