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U.S. And India Getting Closer Than Ever

In his welcome to Prime Minister Singh, President Bush said “our two nations are closer than ever before.” The Indo-U.S. rapprochement started a few years ago, leading to a strategic partnership plan that includes cooperation in areas ranging from missile defense, civilian nuclear energy and high-technology trade to rural education and agriculture. And the United States’ offer to share its civilian nuclear technology with India is unprecedented because of India’s nuclear weapons program.

Robert Blackwill, who served as U-S ambassador to India during President Bush’s first term and helped forge the new strategy, says it was necessary because the two countries share important national interests.

“The first is the global war on terror. And my view is that India, which began to suffer the effects of Islamic “jihadism” long before nine-eleven, more than a decade before, will be with us to the end as others fall away, because of their [India’s] understanding of the threat.”

Preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is therefore vitally important for both countries, says Ambassador Blackwill. “If Islamic terrorists had to discuss in the dead of night in a small room where they might detonate the nuclear weapon they had acquired, there would be a lively debate and probably Washington and Jerusalem might be the most pressing candidates. But I think Delhi and Mumbai [Bombay] would be close behind.”

The United States has kept India at arm’s length since it exploded its first nuclear device in the 1970s. Three more blasts in the 1990’s led to sanctions by the United States, Japan and Germany. But proponents of closer U-S ties with India believe New Delhi has since behaved responsibly and could actually help stop the global spread of nuclear weapons.

Many analysts say the real reason behind the new U-S policy toward India is its cooling relationship with China. Ambassador Blackwill says China’s growing power is a concern for India as well as the United States. “On the rise of Chinese power: there are, in my opinion, no two [other] countries which share equally the challenge of trying to shape the rise of Chinese power. This is not containment. And it is not coarse and crude, but both the U-S and India will be enormously affected by what kind of China emerges over the next decade.”

But to compete with the other Asian giant, India must boost its economic growth. And for that, it needs energy. Ashley Tellis, an analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says it is in America’s interest to help India.

“Energy represents the critical stumbling block to India’s growth as a great power. There are many stumbling blocks: lack of infrastructure, lack of foreign direct investment, the list goes on and on. But in the issue of energy come together economic issues, strategic issues and [nuclear] proliferation issues.”

Ashley Tellis says nuclear power plants may be the best solution to India’s shortage of energy. In his opinion, President Bush was wise to soften U-S policy toward India’s nuclear weapons program and offer to share civilian nuclear technology with India. But some analysts disagree. Helping India build nuclear power plants even though it has refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would make it an exception. Some members of Congress have already expressed concern that such a move could undermine American efforts to confront Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.

Some Indians also are opposed to the U-S plan because they would prefer to see their nuclear arsenal dismantled. Kannan Srinivasan, an international affairs analyst at the Monash-Asia Institute in Melbourne, Australia, calls New Delhi’s nuclear program a “disaster.”

“It is a very polluting program, which has had lots of accidents, which has had a number of instances of severe contamination of workers and people around. Secondly, it has been incredibly expensive and completely inefficient.” Mr. Srinivasan says India’s nuclear arsenal is only important to those in the government who believe it boosts the country’s image as a great power. He adds that U-S support for New Delhi’s civilian nuclear power program, would allow Indian leaders to devote more resources to nuclear arms.

But India does not need more nuclear arms, says political analyst George Perkovich, author of the book India’s Nuclear Bomb. “The greatest threats to India are, it seems to me, the lack of rural development; the need to produce jobs that have livelihoods that lead to prosperity for hundreds of millions of people; the energy issue, its efficiency as well as production and regional inequalities, which over time will raise internal migration issues.” George Perkovich says these problems in addition to rising caste and communal conflicts are a greater threat to India’s security than China’s growing political power.

U-S policy toward India does not go as far as supporting New Delhi’s drive to become a permanent member of the United Nation Security Council, on which China is the only Asian member. Washington continues to oppose India’s plan to participate in the creation of a pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Iran on the grounds that it would provide Tehran with hard currency it could use to support its own nuclear weapons program. But most analysts say the United States has given enough support to the world’s most populous democracy to secure an important ally in Asia.

This story was broadcast as part of VOA Focus series. To hear more Focus stories, please click here.