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US to aid India on nuclear power

Prime minister, Bush hail new era of cooperation

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration yesterday reversed a longstanding policy and pledged to provide India with civilian nuclear energy technology, a clear sign of the emerging alliance between the two nations after decades of acrimony over India's Cold War legacy as a leader of the Nonaligned Movement.

During the first official visit by an Indian leader in five years, President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hailed a new era of cooperation, promising to work together to spread democracy, fight terrorism and the HIV virus, and break down remaining barriers to trade, defense, and economic ties between the two countries. ''India and the United States share a commitment to freedom and a belief that democracy provides the best path to a more hopeful future for all people," Bush said after meeting with Singh in the Oval Office. ''We also believe that the spread of liberty is the best alternative to hatred and violence."

India got what it has wanted most in recent years from the United States: promises of nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel to meet its ballooning energy needs. In return, India pledged to ''assume the same responsibilities and practices" as other countries with advanced nuclear technology, including separating its civilian and weapons facilities and programs.

But arms control specialists raised concerns that the United States risked sending the wrong message -- that it was rewarding a nuclear-weapons power that has refused to join treaties designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. And they noted that such aid would require changing laws that were designed to punish India for its refusal to disclose details of its nuclear weapons program and sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Bush administration officials maintain, however, that India has been responsible with its nuclear technology, reducing concerns of proliferation. Officials also added that the United States needs to build its relationship with India, which is seen, along with China, as one of the world's two fastest-rising economic and military powers over the next 50 years.

According to a joint declaration issued after the meetings, ''President Bush conveyed his appreciation to the prime minister over India's strong commitment to preventing [weapons of mass destruction] proliferation and stated that as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other states."

The statement added that Bush will work with Congress to lift the necessary restrictions and will work ''with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India."

Singh, while not committing to signing any treaties, pledged to adhere to many of the same rules as other nuclear powers, including revealing its civilian nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency, maintaining its moratorium on nuclear testing, and working with the United States to end the production of fissile material, the ingredients needed to make a bomb. But some specialists worry that as a result of the agreement, other countries could decide to relax their own rules and provide civilian nuclear know-how that can potentially be used for hostile purposes to countries of concern such as Iran, Pakistan, and Syria.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 called on signatories -- including nuclear powers Russia, China, the United States, Britain, and France -- not to transfer nuclear know-how to countries that have not signed the treaty. The United States placed its own legal restrictions on nuclear assistance to India in 1978, four years after New Delhi conducted its first atomic bomb test. Those guidelines were strengthened after the 1998 nuclear tests conducted by India and then Pakistan, which has also refused to sign the nonproliferation treaty.

Providing such assistance to India would mark a significant policy shift, according to some specialists.

''The problem is, if you change the rules for India there are other countries that would love to play by the same rules but have far worse proliferation issues," said Michael Krepon, director of the South Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank focusing on security issues. ''France, Russia, China, and other countries will want to play by the same rules for Iran, Pakistan, or Syria."

George Perkovich, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: ''The strongest country can't keep changing the rules. We tell the Russians not to sell X, Y, and Z, but we sell them to India. My objection isn't in principle."

''The question," he added, is whether it can be done ''without undermining the rules-based system. This administration tends not to operate that way."

But the world's second-most populous nation has massive energy needs and has long sought American assistance to expand its nuclear energy industry. The United States is the largest investor in India, and Indian nationals make up the largest number of foreign students attending American universities.

Karl Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 1997 to 2001, welcomed the nuclear cooperation initiative: ''The time is right . . . to have a serious discussion about how to reconcile India's energy needs with our global nonproliferation concerns and do it in a way that will allow us to work with India in a cooperative way in nuclear power."

Singh yesterday was welcomed with pomp and circumstance, replete with a fife and drums corps on the White House's South Lawn, a stark departure from the icy relations during the Cold War, when then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru established the Nonaligned Movement.

Bush and Singh also agreed to cooperate on space technology, agriculture, democracy-building programs, and measures to stop the worldwide spread of HIV.

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