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India, US Aim for Nuclear Energy Agreement Ahead of Bush Visit


President Bush makes his first visit to India and Pakistan later this week to build stronger ties in the subcontinent. His trip to India is expected to consolidate the newly emerging friendship between the world's two largest democracies. But it is uncertain if the two countries will conclude a landmark civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement in time for Mr. Bush to sign it in the Indian capital.

President Bush comes to India six years after a visit by his predecessor ushered a thaw in ties between two countries that were strained for decades.

Those six years have seen a sea change in bilateral relations, with the two nations now calling themselves "natural allies" and partners.

Meeting in the Indian capital, both President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will seek to convey the message that this new friendship is now firmly entrenched.

"This is in some sense a watershed," said Bharat Karnad is a security analyst at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "The two countries are on to a good thing, a strategic relationship that is based on a very well thought out convergence of interests."

But the emerging friendship is not without roadblocks. It is uncertain whether President Bush will sign a high-profile but controversial agreement to give nuclear-armed India access to civilian nuclear technology during his visit. The technology is aimed at helping India meets its rapidly increasing energy needs.

The U.S.-India deal hinges on ensuring the technology will not be used for military purposes, and the two sides are struggling to iron out differences over the plan, which requires India to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities.

C. Raja Mohan at Jawaharlal Nehru University is one of many foreign policy analysts who see the civilian nuclear agreement as crucial to cementing ties between the two countries.

"India is looking to finalize the nuclear deal, and put aside finally the big nuclear difference that has troubled this relationship for so long," said Mohan. "Once we sort the nuclear thing out, then the door opens for a much wider, much deeper relationship."

Analysts say India, which sees itself as an emerging global power, also looks on President Bush's visit as an opportunity to raise its international profile.

As China grows stronger and the Middle East remains a troubled region, American policy makers see a democratic India as a strategic priority. C. Raja Mohan says there is huge potential for the two large democracies to cooperate.

"The two important issues, which President Bush himself has referred to, - one is the creation of a stable balance of power in Asia, when China is rising, when structurally there are a whole range of challenges in Asia, India and the U.S. need to work together," he said. "The other is the question of democracy, democratization in our region, where India and the U.S. could work together."

But the growing India-US friendship has generated misgivings in some quarters in New Delhi. Left-wing parties, which are crucial allies of the ruling coalition, have repeatedly warned the government against what they call "toeing the U.S. line" and sacrificing an independent foreign policy.

India's prime minister, on the defensive, has repeatedly stressed that his government will not compromise the country's national security to seal the nuclear deal with the United States.

Nonetheless, President Bush's visit is likely to underscore the desire in both countries to engage more closely with each other.

President Bush will meet Indian leaders in New Delhi to sign agreements on trade, agriculture and energy, and briefly visit the technology hub of Hyderabad in southern Andhra Pradesh state, before he embarks on the second leg of his South Asia trip to Pakistan.