President Bush yesterday signed a bill establishing civilian nuclear ties with India, a dramatic break in three decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy but a step that the Bush administration said will closer bind both nations and redraw the balance of power in Asia.
“After 30 years outside the system, India will now operate its civilian nuclear energy program under internationally accepted guidelines — and the world is going to be safer as a result,” Mr. Bush said, signing legislation that could allow U.S. nuclear technology to be shared with India for nonmilitary purposes.
As the president’s push to establish democracies sputters in the Middle East, the India agreement gives him a major international diplomatic accomplishment in another part of the world. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns called it one of the most important strategic accomplishments of Mr. Bush’s tenure.
“The real importance of the legislation the president is signing today is not just the nuclear aspect; it’s the wider implications for the benefit to the United States strategically of having this huge democratic power now very close to the United States and us close to them,” he said.
Those new ties come as the United States tries to manage relations with Pakistan and figure out a way to deal with China — both of which see India as a competitor.
The deal had overwhelming support in Congress, passing last week in the Senate by unanimous consent and in the House by 330-59.
Opponents, though, said the agreement marks a retreat in the United States’ stated goal of containing nuclear proliferation. Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, called it “an historic mistake.”
“It has shredded the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; it has emboldened Iran’s nuclear-weapons program and has vastly increased India’s capacity to make nuclear weapons to 40 to 50 nuclear bombs per year from two to three nuclear bombs per year,” he said.
And Michael Krepon, a former arms-control official, said the deal opens the door to other nations helping Iran or Pakistan bolster their nuclear programs.
“You can count on this happening. You can count on China demanding an exception for Pakistan. And you can count on Russia down the road demanding an exception for Iran,” said Mr. Krepon, who is also co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, an international affairs institute. “The export-control system that we rely upon for nonproliferation has taken a big hit with this deal.”
The Indian government says the deal erodes the international controls over its nuclear program — but sees that as a good thing.
“Eventually, our objective is that technology denial regimes that have targeted India for so many decades must be dismantled so that our national development is unimpeded,” the minister of external affairs, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, told parliament last week, according to the Hindu newspaper.
He also said India will ignore provisions that Congress attached to the nuclear agreement urging India to stop cooperation with Iran on that nation’s nuclear program.
“The conduct of foreign policy determined solely by our national interests is our sovereign right,” he said.
India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, then tested a thermonuclear bomb in May 1998, prompting Pakistan to conduct a series of tests about two weeks later.
India has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and has rejected full International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on its nuclear facilities.
Previously, those had been conditions for U.S. nuclear cooperation, but the Bush administration announced in 2005 that it would drop those and work for a new deal with India.
The administration insisted that this is not a model for Iran, Pakistan or other nations claiming to want to expand their civilian nuclear programs.
“India is unique in that respect,” Mr. Burns said. “We have no plans whatsoever to provide this kind of legislation for any other country, including Pakistan.”
Yesterday’s signing is just the first step in a process before U.S. technology can be transferred. Approval by the IAEA, a consensus from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and further cooperation agreements between the United States and India are still pending, although Mr. Burns said the bipartisan support for the bill in Congress is likely to sway NSG members who had raised questions.
The bill was passed based in part on the strength of growing power in the Indian-American community, and Mr. Bush invited many of those leaders to yesterday’s signing ceremony in the White House’s East Room.
Mr. Bush said the bill should strengthen ties between two nations that should be natural allies, declaring that “the rivalries that once kept our nations apart are no more.”
He noted that India and the United States are the world’s two biggest democracies, both are committed to open societies, and both have suffered from terrorist attacks and are fighting in a war against terrorism.
The president said that in addition to bringing India under some international safeguards, the deal will also boost alternatives to fossil fuels in India and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.