US vote on N-deal with India seals strategic partnership

THE United States Senate yesterday endorsed overwhelmingly a nuclear accord with India, in effect cementing a strategic partnership.

The vote in Congress on the deal represented a major foreign policy victory for US President George W. Bush – a week after his Republican Party’s stinging defeat by the Democrats in the mid-term elections raised concerns that it would not go through a divided government.

Clearly, the depth of support for the plan, which reverses decades of anti-proliferation policy and allows the US to ship civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India, was reflected on both sides of the aisle.

Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden said it will “increase the prospect for stability and progress in South Asia and in the world at large”.

“In a time where relationships between states are critically important in shaping the world in which we live, no relationship is more important than the one we’re building with India,” he said.

Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who will now become a ranking member on that committee, called the deal “the most important strategic diplomatic initiative” that the Bush administration has undertaken.

Mr Bush, who had lobbied hard for Congress to support the accord – and who even called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about it during his trip to Singapore – said it would “increase the transparency of India’s entire civilian nuclear programme”.

The landmark deal, which Washington believes will “help India become a major world power in the 21st century”, had critics,who sought to push through several amendments.

Some lawmakers were concerned that it would destabilise the region with an arms race with nuclear rivals China and Pakistan. But Senate leaders, with critical support not just from the White House, but also New Delhi and powerful business lobbyists, defeated the amendments with a vote of 85 to 12.

There was one condition they accepted though: that the Bush administration gets New Delhi to join international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear programme. The strong Senate approval puts India closer to buying US nuclear fuel, reactors and related technology.

Several obstacles remain, the chief of which is for the House of Representatives and the Senate to now reconcile their versions into a single Bill by the next congressional session in January.

Dr Ashley Tellis, a Bush strategist on South Asia and a key architect of the accord, expects the deal to go through, given the strong bipartisan support in Congress.

“US and Indian interests are strongly convergent for the first time in recent memory,” he explained. “India’s contribution to US objectives range from the important to the indispensable.”

One significant issue binding the two countries is to “prevent Asia from being dominated by any single power that has the capacity to crowd out others and which may use the aggressive assertion of national self-interest to threaten American presence”.

Observers believe an emerging strategic partnership is important to hedge against China. A nuclear-armed, democratic and economically resurgent India could balance Chinese military ambitions.

With the nuclear accord, US-India ties will edge closer to sharing many of the features of a formal alliance.

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