Finding a passage to India this time

The US has tried to cozy up to India ever since the end of the cold war, and President Bush's trip there this week has the potential to cement an alliance with the world's largest democracy. But Mr. Bush may not have all his diplomatic ducks in order.

Bush's journey to India (which includes a short stopover in Pakistan) will tie a ribbon on a package of bilateral undertakings, from agriculture to military sales, that will bring the two countries closer. But one critical and unusual agreement on nuclear energy may be missing for lack of trust between the two global giants.

Under a proposal made last July, the US would supply nuclear technology and fuel to India in return for New Delhi allowing international inspections of its civilian nuclear plants and a separation of its now-blended military and civilian atomic programs.

The deal sounds simple in concept and would solve a number of problems, such as helping India use more nuclear power instead of burning up more of its coal reserves and adding to the world's greenhouse emissions. But months of talks to work out the details have shown how differently each sees the world and its role in it.

India still has a postcolonial prickliness over being independent - in this case, in nuclear fuel. The US, meantime, expects India to be a fellow leader in following the rules of nuclear nonproliferation - for instance, in opening its planned fast-breeder reactor to foreign inspectors to keep dangerous plutonium from domestic and international military use.

A deal may soon be inked, but there are valid reasons the US needs to avoid compromises that would let India continue to mix its military and civilian nuclear programs. Such an allowance would send the wrong signal in US efforts to keep other nations, from North Korea to Iran, from avoiding international inspections and diverting nuclear resources to their militaries.

A US embrace of India, such as helping it shore up its resources for an energy-hungry booming economy, should not be achieved at any cost, even if it fits a US geopolitical interest in counterbalancing China or a US commercial interest in military sales.

While India has tested nuclear weapons, first in 1974 and then in 1998, and has refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has not exported such weapons know-how or resources, much to its credit. This new US attempt to have India act as if it were within the NPT but only under a bilateral pact must be done precisely for the sake of global nuclear nonproliferation.

By law, the US cannot export nuclear power technology that might be diverted to make new nuclear warheads for India. But India's intentions remain unclear on how many warheads it eventually wants to build, and exactly how it will keep its military program separate. That seems to account for the slow progress in the talks.

A strategic US-India partnership can grow without a final deal on nuclear partnership. But both sides know that a full blossoming of such an alliance requires a clear-eyed global perspective on setting the right precedents for nuclear nonproliferation.

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