India Asserts Itself in Nuke Talks with US ; President Bush Arrives in India Wednesday. Nuclear Talks Will Be High on the Agenda

Article excerpt

If Henry Kissinger is right - that there are no permanent alliances, only permanent national interests - then the US and India should be in for a long friendship.

Yet Mr. Kissinger's doctrine may provide a cautionary tale for the US, particularly when it comes to India's nuclear program.

In 11th-hour negotiations to formally accept its status as a nuclear power, India has signaled that it is not afraid to stand up to the world's sole superpower if its national interests are at stake.

In the lead up to President Bush's first trip to India, which begins Wednesday, both countries tamped down expectations of a final deal and continued to work on something Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could sign before Bush's departure on Saturday for Pakistan.

As the fierce debate over India's long-secret nuclear program shows - with American critics calling it a breach in global nonproliferation, and Indian critics shouting for sovereignty - it is clear that India feels it can negotiate with a superpower, as an equal.

"India is not going to be a junior partner to the US, and India is not going to be uncritically supportive of the US on all issues," says C. Rajamohan, a member of India's National Security Advisory Board.

Stumbling over inspections

At the core of the controversy is a US proposal to grant official Nuclear Power Status to India, including the ability to buy nuclear fuels and parts on the global market, in return for Indian cooperation with regular inspections by the UN-mandated International Atomic Energy Agency.

India has agreed in principle to allow inspections at a number of its civilian nuclear plants, but wants to withhold certain military and research labs from IAEA inspection.

The proposed landmark nuclear agreement, announced during Singh's visit to Washington last July, has been criticized by nonproliferation experts around the world because India never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under US and international law, nuclear technology can only be shared with countries who have signed the treaty.

In Washington, some members of Congress argue that the Bush administration could be setting a dangerous double standard by granting India Nuclear Power Status, while denying it to countries such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.

But Indian experts say they're not asking for too much.

"We really don't want the moon," says Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, a nuclear scientist and former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in Hyderabad. "The rational view is to state the obvious: India is a nuclear power. Then you figure out how much you can live with, and what are the minimal modifications you can get over time."

But Dr. Gopalakrishnan says there is a powerful sense of suspicion - and even revenge - among India's nuclear science establishment toward the US.

"It is the US that forced such painful sanctions on us" in 1974, after India tested its first nuclear bomb, "and it is these same guys who are trying to change the rules again," he says. …