The President's Passage to India

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For an Administration beset by troubles, from the war in Iraq and the Medicare drug benefit confusion to, most recently, the controversial ports management deal with the United Arab Emirates, India represents something of a bright spot. While the Iraq War has caused notable strains between the U.S. and many of its Western allies, the two formidable countries have actually grown closer in recent years — the product of increased trade, a joint struggle against Islamic-based terrorists and a commitment to common democratic values. "The trip will underscore the very dramatic strides that have taken place in the relationship," says Robert Hathaway, an India scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

So it's probably safe to say that a President who hasn't always loved to travel abroad is very much looking forward to his latest getaway. When the President jets off to India (as well as Pakistan) next week, it will be his first visit to the region and the first by a Republican president in 35 years, since Richard Nixon traveled there. (President Clinton visited India in 2000, the first president to travel there since Jimmy Carter.)

The President’s three days there, which will include a visit to the high-tech industries in Hyderabad, will play up the recent goodwill. Indeed, since 1947, when India won its independence from Great Britain, relations between the United States and world’s most populopus democracy have often been rocky. India enjoyed close relations with the Soviet Union during most of the Cold War, while the U.S. often sided with its bitter neighbor Pakistan. India's nuclear program — the country detonated its first atomic weapon in 1974 — also made for tension over the years.

Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will tackle many issues at the summit, including tsunami relief, supporting the Afghan government, Iran's nuclear ambitions, returning democracy to Nepal, and containing avian flu. But one of the most crucial items on the agenda is the two nations' impending Nuclear Agreement. Last July, Singh and Bush agreed on the broad outlines of a nuclear deal that would require India to separate its military and civilian nuclear programs. In exchange the U.S. would share nuclear technology with India, whose population now exceeds one billion and whose energy demand has been voracious.

Closing the deal is not guaranteed. U.S. and Indian negotiators have been at it in recent days and Undersecretary Of State Nicholas Burns arrives in the region this week to help put the agreement to bed. Among the sticking points are the proportion of its nuclear program that will be opened to international inspection. "I'll continue to encourage India to produce a credible, transparent and defensible plan to separate its civilian and military programs," Mr. Bush said in an appearance at a meeting of the Asia Society in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Even if U.S. and Indian negotiators get to a deal, selling it to the U.S. Congress and to India’s parliament won’t be simple. Many in the U.S. fear that the agreement undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which India has not signed. And in India, where the nuclear program is a deep source of national pride and the ultimate defense against nuclear neighbor Pakistan, there is considerable unease about international inspectors scrutinizing India’s prized program.

Still with both administrations committed to the deal, it’s likely to go through — if not on this trip then at some point. Right now India gets only 3 percent of its energy from nuclear power, and it hopes that figure will rise to as much as 25 percent by 2050 — both to reduce its energy imports and to limit the use of its own coal supplies, which are highly polluting. The U.S. wants to be part of India’s nuclear growth and to see it take place under international oversight.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. also wants to be part of India's economic growth. In his address to the Asia Society, Bush made it a point to note that while many Americans fear outsourcing of their jobs to India, the Indians have developed a taste for American goods. "Younger Indians are acquiring a taste for pizzas from Domino’s and Pizza Hut. And Air India ordered 68 planes valued at more than $11 billion from Boeing, the single largest commercial airplane order in India’s civilian aviation history. Today India’s consumers associate American brands with quality and value."

One major issue that is not likely to get much attention is India’s decades-old conflict with Pakistan over the Indian province of Kashmir. In Washington this week, India’s Ambassador to the United States, Ronen Sen, repeated the country’s longstanding position that it doesn’t want third-party intervention in its dispute with Pakistan over the province.

As with much of president Bush’s diplomacy, there will be personal touches. Bush and Singh got along well at their July meeting in Washington last year. A senior aide to Bush says the President admires how Singh, a former economist trained at Great Britain’s Cambridge University, is committed to cutting tariffs and economic liberalization. Aides also say that while Bush has not visited India, he regards it in some ways as his father did when he was U.S. envoy to China in the 1970s — a country with vast potential that is just beginning to come into its own. Says the aide: "He’s very excited about this trip. He knows how important it is." And, he might add given the current circumstances in Washington, how welcome it is.