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Archive for Sunday, March 5, 2006

U.S. sees India as nuclear ‘good guy’

March 5, 2006

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The World Economic Forum at Davos offers an annual barometer of which countries are considered most dynamic.

This year, India was the Davos "it" country. The wildest session at Davos was a "Bollywood" party, with diaphanously clad dancers jumping from the stage to draw CEOs from the world's top multinationals into dancing to tunes that have made Indian movies a sensation.

India has arrived on the world scene, and made clear at Davos that its 7 percent to 8 percent growth rate thrust it into the same league as, albeit far behind, China. "India Everywhere," blared a public relations campaign that blanketed Davos with the logo "India: Fastest Growing Free Market Democracy."

No wonder President Bush enjoyed his first trip to India this week.

After half a century of strained relations during the Cold War, the world's largest democracy and ours are developing a strategic relationship. Socialist India clung to its old ties to the Soviet Union, but a globalizing India is seeking deeper bonds with America. And Washington clearly sees warm relations with India as a hedge against China's growing power.

Let me say - before I get to my problem with the president's visit - that these closer ties delight me. In 1998, I had the good fortune to cover a very colorful Indian national election. In Rajahstani villages and Mumbai slums, the local voters understood the impact they could make on their leaders. Elections had real meaning there, perhaps more than here.

I also sat in on a session of India's Supreme Court and saw the degree to which rule of law, a concept introduced by the colonial British, was adopted by Indians and made their own, even if it is often abused at lower court levels. This respect for rule of law, in a country with endless languages and sects, helps set Indian democracy apart from many countries that are democracies in name only.

And I was invited to tea at his bungalow by Manmohan Singh, the respected economist in his trademark blue turban. Singh has a squeaky-clean reputation and as finance minister in 1991, introduced India's economic reform program. He became prime minister in 2004 and is advancing those reforms against many challenges. I can't forget Singh's modest manner ("Are you sure you really want to see me?" he asked on the phone). Watching him on TV, I feel honored to have visited him at home.

How could one not be pleased to see our two democracies develop a closer friendship? Trade between us is booming; talented Indian Americans provide a bridge. Most of us have had the experience of calling an airline or computer help desk and chatting with a young Indian in Mumbai.

But I regret the centerpiece of the Bush trip was a deal to provide India with nuclear fuel and technology, even though this violates the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - and U.S. law. India never signed the NPT and used peaceful nuclear technology supplied by Canada to develop a nuclear bomb in 1974. When it tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the United States imposed sanctions (since lifted).

No one can pretend India is not a nuclear power. But the NPT aims to prevent more countries from using peaceful nuclear energy technology to develop bombs.

Although the U.S.-Indian deal puts some of India's nuclear reactors under international inspection, others will remain under military control and off limits. The fuel provided to India for civilian reactors can free up fuel from military reactors to make more bombs.

Clearly America sees India as a "good guy" whose nuclear program doesn't threaten the world, whose fuel won't be sold to "bad guys." (Never mind the standoff with Pakistan over Kashmir holds potential for nuclear war.) But if there's a double standard for nuclear "good guys," how does this affect the effort to curb the spread of nuclear weapons?

"What is the signal to the world?" asks John Wolf, former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. "What does this say to other countries that have previously accepted the Non-Proliferation Treaty as the international architecture?"

Why shouldn't other democracies or U.S. allies such as Brazil, Japan or Egypt decide they want to use peaceful technology to make weapons? The more nuclear powers, the more chance of an explosion.

And why should a state such as Iran, which many believe is using a peaceful nuclear program to develop weapons, not follow the Indian example? The United States is trying to isolate Iran for not following NPT rules, but if India can avoid them, why shouldn't Iran do the same?

These are important questions that, in its eagerness to woo India and sell nuclear technology, the administration has yet to answer. Many in Congress are already asking. Despite our welcome friendship with India, answers are needed soon.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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