India's time

March 01, 2006

For America, India's moment has come. After decades of stubborn wallowing in postcolonial insularity and soft socialism, the world's largest democracy has been spawning deeper, more diverse ties to the world. Its economy has been booming, creating a large and aspiring middle class. Its millions of well-educated English speakers have been in high demand for their high-tech skills. Its trade with the United States has been growing by more than 20 percent a year.

And today in New Delhi, President Bush begins a summit that could mark an important turning point in forging a stronger U.S.-India relationship as a counterweight to China's rising power and Pakistan's uncertain direction.

This opening is very much in America's interest. But it is clouded by a very big unanswered question: the free pass that Mr. Bush wants to give New Delhi to bring it in from the cold on nuclear matters.

India - like North Korea, Pakistan, Israel and Iran - has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It has built and tested nuclear weapons, prompting a U.S. ban on transfers of civilian nuclear technology to India. Now Mr. Bush wants to open the way for civilian cooperation - if New Delhi strictly separates its civilian and military nuclear programs and subjects the civilian side to international inspections.

In America, there's opposition over the inconsistency of rewarding India for much the same nuclear steps that are earning Iran so much U.S. ire; there's also fear that other nuclear rogues, particularly Pakistan, may be emboldened by the prospect of a similar deal eventually coming their way. In India, opponents worry that deterrence of Pakistan would be compromised by an imposed military-civilian nuclear split.

The India deal was to be done and signed before Mr. Bush continues on his South Asian swing to Pakistan. But it has turned out be not that simple, and now the president could leave India with only a face-saving measure that leaves many tough details unresolved.

That would be a short-term setback for the United States that should not be allowed to detract from the big strides toward closer relations that could still result from this presidential visit. After years of stumbling, India has finally found a path toward becoming a global power, and it can pursue that takeoff so much faster with greater U.S. economic and political involvement. In turn, India is well positioned geographically and politically to become a natural and useful U.S. ally.

Washington's global logic on the nuclear issue is a problem, of course, but, after all, few believe that India has the potential for dangerous nuclear misdeeds like North Korea or Iran. America needs closer friendships in this part of the world, and the vibrant and peaceful democracy of India is a perfect candidate for a deeper alliance.

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