- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

As President Bush prepares for today’s meetings with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other senior Indian officials, relations between Washington and New Delhi are undergoing a remarkable transformation for the better.

During the Cold War, India, while officially unaligned, frequently sided with the Soviet Union, while Washington supported India’s archrival Pakistan.

After India suddenly conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998, the United States imposed sanctions against New Delhi, which it tended to view chiefly as an obstacle to U.S. nonproliferation efforts and other policy goals. The relationship, which began to improve following President Clinton’s March 2000 visit to India, has made substantial advances since that time, with the world’s two largest democracies forging new economic and strategic ties.

A major catalyst for change was September 11. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, India immediately offered the United States the use of its bases for counterterrorism operations. Within months, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee met with President Bush, and the two leaders agreed to expand U.S.-Indian cooperation on issues which included counterterrorism, regional security and civilian nuclear safety. Since November 2001, high-level ties between the two nations have expanded substantially, particularly in the area of security cooperation.

What is perhaps most extraordinary is that the Bush administration has been able to forge a new military partnership with India during a period when Pakistan became an ally in the war on terror. The United States and India have held numerous joint exercises involving air and naval forces. U.S. and Indian special forces have conducted joint exercises near India’s border with China (a major strategic rival of both Washington and New Delhi.) In July, Mr. Singh visited Washington, where the United States and India signed a joint statement that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier in the wake of India’s 1998 nuclear tests: The statement said that “as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should aquire the same benefits and advantages as other states.” Mr. Bush for his part pledged to work to attain “full civilian nuclear cooperation with India.”

Last year, the two nations launched a program called the Global Democracy Initiative, a joint venture aimed at helping emerging democracies to fight corruption and promote the rule of law. India has pledged $565 million to help the new democratic government of Afghanistan repair that country’s shattered infrastructure.

India has also become one of the fastest-growing markets for American exports, which last year grew by more than 30 percent. Its burgeoning middle class, estimated at close to 300 million people, is likely to become an even larger U.S. market in the near future.

There is, however, one potentially discordant note — India’s relationship with Iran. In 2003, as the Iran nuclear crisis was heating up, New Delhi and Tehran announced a “bilateral strategic partnership.” In recent years, the United States has imposed sanctions on Indian scientists and chemical firms for transferring WMD-related equipment or technology to Iran — sanctions that were protested by the Indian government. Indian firms have agreed to long-term contracts for the purchase of Iranian oil and gas, raising concern that Tehran could attempt to use the energy deal to put pressure on India in the nuclear realm.

Despite this caveat, Washington’s improving relationship with New Delhi has thus far been a significant achievement for the Bush administration.

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