US plans to broaden India's access to nuclear technology, announced this week during an enthusiastic visit to Washington by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have their roots in designs from the earliest days of the Bush administration to build India's stature as a counterbalance to a rising and problematic China.
The proposed extension of nuclear access to what the White House likes to call "the world's largest democracy" raises questions about potential impact on other countries with nuclear ambitions and designs for international status. That is especially true as the announcement comes just days before the European Union is to return to negotiations with Iran to end its nuclear-weapons programs and six-party talks are to take up again in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear program.
But perhaps the greatest significance of the plan is what it says about 21st- century geopolitics and in particular about a Bush administration vision for dealing with China, some analysts say.
"The crux of this announcement is what it tells us about the US grand strategy, and that behind whatever else is going on here the US is preparing for a grand conflict with China and constructing an anti-China coalition," says Joseph Cirincione, head of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "In that scenario, India is even more valuable as a nuclear power, rather than as a nonnuclear country."
The White House plan, which would allow India broader access to international technology for its nuclear power industry in exchange for India granting some access to international inspections, still faces high hurdles: Opposition is expected to be strong both in the US Congress and among other nuclear powers who along with the US would have some say.
In the view of some specialists, the plan would certainly erode and perhaps mean the scrapping of decades of international nonproliferation effort in favor of an ad hoc, case-by-case approach that rewards certain countries while punishing others. "This is a plan that chooses good guys and bad guys, and says that what matters is power politics and not nonproliferation principles," Mr. Cirincione says.
But for others, the plan reflects a realistic appraisal both of exploding global energy needs and India's responsible track record in handling nuclear technology.
"Yes, this does look at India on an individual basis, but it also rewards a worthy country for its very good performance on nuclear proliferation, and in that sense it reflects a desirable change in US policy," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. The US shift will raise protests from Pakistan, Mr. Harrison says, but in response to protests of special treatment for India, the US "has an answer, and that is: A. Q. Khan," he adds, referring to the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear program who developed a clandestine nuclear bazaar.
Certainly, the US increasingly sees India as a "good guy," both in terms of the South Asian region but also in international affairs. President Bush referred to "our shared values" during Mr. Singh's White House visit Monday, while State Department officials say the agreement points the way for US-India relations for the coming decades.
In a speech to Congress Tuesday, Prime Minister Singh emphasized India's record of guarding its nuclear technology from a dangerous spread, assuring members of Congress that India "never will be a source of proliferation of nuclear technologies." Harrison says the US agreement would also rectify an anomaly in the "outdated" international nonproliferation regime that allows the US to sell civilian nuclear technology to China but not to India.
The White House plan does not formally recognize India as a nuclear power, but some critics say it does grant de facto recognition.
Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs during the Clinton administration, recognizes the plan will be controversial among many nonproliferation experts and in Congress. But he adds: "It's the right call for us and for the world, really. This is a way to bring India into a global nonproliferation regime, rather than leaving it on the outside."
Yet while the nuclear agreement signals new thinking on US-India relations, it won't really mean a new chapter in the partnership unless the administration is willing to fight for the plan and convince Congress of its merits, Mr. Harrison says. "This is a litmus test, for Indians and for others as well, as to whether the US is really serious about seeing India as a key and rising player in global calculations," he says.
No doubt China will be watching how far the US plans to take the relationship. So will Europe - in particular a European Union that does not see the rising challenge of China in the same terms as the US, but which has put off arms sales to China in response to US concerns. China is clearly a factor in US calculations on India, experts say, but some also warn that the US has little to gain if it develops ties to India primarily as a counterweight to another rising power.
"I know a lot of people are busy devising the scenarios of India counterbalancing China and joining us in confronting a rising power, but we need to be careful not to get into a triangular trap," says Mr. Inderfurth, now at George Washington University. The problems the global powers face, from poverty to the spread of nuclear weapons, are nothing any one country can address, he says. "We need to develop relations with both countries and work in a cooperative, not a competitive way."