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By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 47 minutes ago

 

WASHINGTON - President Bush signed legislation on Monday to let America share its nuclear know-how and fuel with India even though New Delhi refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

"By helping India expand its use of safe nuclear energy, this bill lays the foundation for a new strategic partnership between our two nations that will help ease India's demands for fossil fuels and ease pressure on global markets," Bush said in a bill-signing ceremony at the White House.

The bill carves out an exemption in U.S. law to allow civilian nuclear trade with India in exchange for Indian safeguards and inspections at its 14 civilian nuclear plants. Eight military plants, however, would remain off-limits to the inspections.

The House and Senate had overwhelmingly approved the nuclear cooperation bill, giving Bush a foreign policy victory at a time when the administration is struggling to come up with a new approach to the unpopular war in Iraq

Critics worry the agreement could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia by boosting India's atomic arsenal. They also argue that the measure undermines international efforts to prevent states like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. In Beijing on Monday, North Korea defiantly declared itself a nuclear power at the start of the first full international arms talks since its atomic test in July and threatened to increase its arsenal if its demands were not met.

The White House said it was willing to make an exception for India, the world's largest democracy, because it had protected its nuclear technology and not been a proliferator.

"India has conducted its civilian nuclear energy program in a safe and responsible way for decades," Bush said. "Now, in return for access to American technology, India has agreed to open its civilian nuclear power program to international inspection."

The administration also argued it was a good deal because while India's military plants that work with nuclear material would not be subjected to inspections, there would be international oversight for the civilian program, which has been secret since India entered the nuclear age in 1974.

"After 30 years outside the system, India will now operate its civilian nuclear energy program under internationally accepted guidelines and the world is going to be safer as a result," the president said.

The Bush administration said the pact deepens ties with a democratic Asia power, but was not designed as a counterweight to the rising power of China. "We don't have a policy that would build up a relationship with India to contain China," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters before the bill signing.

Bush said the law would make it possible for India, the world's fifth-largest consumer of energy, to reduce emissions and improve its environment. India, whose demand for electricity is expected to double by 2015, currently produced nearly 70 percent of its electricity by burning coal, which produces air pollution and greenhouse gases.

The deal also could be a boon for American companies that have been barred from selling reactors and material to India where the economy has more than doubled in size since 1991.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh defended the nuclear deal, rejecting strong opposition from critics that it would lead to the dismantling of India's atomic weapons. He said he had some concerns about the legislation, but that they would be dealt with during technical negotiations on an overall U.S.-India cooperation agreement.

"The United States has assured us that the bill would enable it to meet its commitments" made in agreements struck in July 2005 and in March by Bush and Singh.

Singh said India would not accept new conditions and its nuclear weapons program would not be subject to interference of any kind because the agreement with the United States dealt with civil nuclear cooperation.

Earlier, opposition leader L.K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party said India should not accept the U.S. legislation, saying that the deal would prevent India from conducting nuclear tests in the future. India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 and followed it up with a series of nuclear tests in 1998.

"The primary objective is to cap, roll back and ultimately eliminate its (India's) nuclear weapons capability," Advani warned.

Before civil nuclear trade can begin, several hurdles remain. American and Indian officials need to work out a separate technical nuclear cooperation agreement, expected to be finished next year. The two countries must now obtain an exception for India in the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an assembly of nations that export nuclear material. Indian officials must also negotiate a safeguard agreement with the IAEA.

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