New U.S. Alliance With India Forges Key Strategic Relationship

When President Bush signs into law the “Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006” expected to pass Congress overwhelmingly, he will pave the way for arguably the most important strategic relationship the U.S. will establish for many years to come.

The accord, under which the U.S. would ship nuclear technology for civilian use to India in exchange for safeguards and inspections at nuclear power plants, removes a long-standing source of tension between Washington and New Delhi and solidifies a partnership that will promote global peace and stability.

A robust U.S. relationship with India -- a vibrant democracy with a rapidly growing economy -- will provide a stabilizing influence in Asia and help the U.S. meet global challenges like counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation and HIV/AIDS.

Arriving at this point was no easy task. The Bush administration and Congress spent an enormous amount of time and energy pursuing and refining this controversial initiative over the last 18 months. Even before the deal was announced on July 18, 2005, U.S. policymakers, congressional staffers and academics battled over the issue. Nonproliferation experts were generally concerned about breaking the norms of the current nonproliferation regime, while regional experts saw a need to bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream and to cement the strategic relationship.

The legislative piece of the deal was particularly complex. There was a tremendous uproar throughout Congress immediately following the July 18 announcement, as lawmakers berated the Bush administration for not consulting with them before making a pronouncement with such significant legislative and policy implications. To its credit, the administration quickly began an intensive process of consultations. Both chambers of Congress held numerous hearings and heard testimony from a variety of witnesses, both for and against the deal. The foreign affairs committees submitted hundreds of “questions for the record” to the administration to clarify key issues.

Neither the U.S. nor India got everything it wanted from the deal. But this is usually the case in any prolonged negotiating process that ultimately brings historical change.

For example, India cringes at amendments urging its cooperation in helping to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. The maintenance of this language in the final legislation demonstrates the seriousness Congress attaches to the Iranian nuclear issue. New Delhi objects to Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and voted against Iran during crucial meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency in September 2005 and February 2006.

However, India has an interest in maintaining cordial ties with Tehran, given its role in the region and its proximity to Pakistan, and New Delhi is uncomfortable with American legislation prescribing its foreign policy.

In the U.S., nuclear experts argued stridently to require India to reduce fissile material production, but in the end, most policymakers understood that the complex regional dynamics involving a nuclear-armed China and Pakistan meant any such provision would kill the deal from the Indian perspective.

Washington and New Delhi are expanding ties in other areas, to be sure. Both countries are moving forward on various cooperative measures, such as a knowledge initiative on agriculture, a CEOs’ forum to expand trade and investment, and a new defense framework to expand military ties, to name a few. These endeavors would have progressed regardless of the outcome of the civil nuclear deal, but the quality of the relationship and the strategic cooperation between the two countries will be stronger due to the deal’s passage. New Delhi views the deal as an important test of U.S. reliability and confidence in India as a responsible power.

Some critics argue that the deal weakens the U.S. hand in its negotiations with North Korea and Iran aimed at ending their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed this issue during a recent speech at The Heritage Foundation, in which she stated that the nuclear deal is part of comprehensive efforts by the U.S. to address nuclear nonproliferation at a time when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is clearly under strain.

The U.S. can no longer afford a one-size-fits-all nonproliferation policy. U.S. policy needs to be flexible enough to cooperate with like-minded partners (including India) and at the same time isolate countries that pose a direct threat to international security, such as North Korea and Iran. The nuclear deal with India represents an effort to deal effectively with evolving proliferation problems in the 21st century and is based upon the belief that it will benefit U.S. interests to have India as a cooperative partner on nuclear issues.

The 109th Congress was widely criticized for not finishing work on numerous legislative issues. But it can take justifiable pride in completing the India civil nuclear legislation.

Lisa Curtis is a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.