A key factor behind the nuclear cooperation agreement reached this week between the United States and India was a simple trade-off: The White House was willing to risk losing ground in the worldwide campaign to limit the spread of nuclear weapons for a deal with India that could help it counter the rising power of China.
Despite widespread criticism that the pact sets back global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, Bush administration officials praise the deal for its promise of better ties with a thriving democracy and reduced competition for world oil.
But administration officials also know well that an India that is more prosperous, and well armed, represents a hedge against Chinese military ambitions. With China’s intentions unclear, such a counter is an important component of U.S. strategy.
Counterbalancing China “is an under-the-surface issue that only rarely pokes its head up,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a former Energy Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “But it’s very much there.”
The Bush administration has made nonproliferation one of its top priorities, and is trying to limit the nuclear ambitions of Iran. But the pact with India could hurt that goal. Many experts think the U.S.-India agreement is likely to convince nonnuclear nations that they can proceed with bomb-building programs in the face of international disapproval, and eventually win back American support.
In the past, the administration has stressed the importance of the U.S.-Japanese strategic relationship to ensure it has a close and capable ally on China’s southeastern flank. The deal with India reflects a desire to build an alliance on China’s southwestern boundary. The agreement, which requires congressional approval, would lift a moratorium on civilian nuclear cooperation and allow for India’s continued work on nuclear arms.
U.S. officials didn’t mention China as they presented details of the accord. But several senior administration officials have said the United States must strengthen India to offset China.
Ashley J. Tellis, a senior State Department official and a key architect of the new strategic policy on India, has argued that a buildup of India’s nuclear arsenal is not only in New Delhi’s interest, but Washington’s. It will cause Beijing to worry more about India and less about the United States, Tellis says.
U.S. officials contend that neither they nor the Indians consider China an enemy or a force that needs to be “contained,” as the United States once sought to do with the Soviet Union. Experts said it was more accurate to describe the strategy as an effort to offset one rising power by building up another -- one that is considered closer in values and outlook to the United States.
“This is an effort to counterbalance the rise of China, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say to contain China or to be antagonistic toward it,” said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. “We obviously have an interest in a large, democratic, multiethnic society as a counterbalance to the Chinese in the region.”
India and China say they don’t want to compete with each other militarily. In 2003, they signed an agreement to build a “long-term constructive and cooperative partnership” based on “peaceful coexistence.” Indeed, their relations have improved in recent years, as seen in the settlement of border disputes and an agreement aimed at reducing competition for oil.
Yet some experts warn that India and China are also taking steps that could lead to confrontation. China, for example, is helping Pakistan build a submarine base at Gwadar, in Baluchistan province, where Pakistan accuses India of backing insurgents to destabilize the area.
India, meanwhile, is engaged in a massive arms-buying spree, including an expansion of its naval forces, which eventually could lead to regional competition with China.
Under Thursday’s deal, India retained the right to deny United Nations inspectors access to a “fast-breeder” reactor suitable for producing weapons-grade fissile material. Since India refused to agree to a cap, there is no limit on the expansion of its nuclear arsenal -- a fact that critics say could provoke a regional arms race.
At the beginning of President Bush’s first term, dealing with China’s growing power was a top priority of many policymakers, beginning with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The need to meet the challenge of China was a central tenet of the neoconservative creed associated with Bush’s inner circle.
But China lost priority after the Sept. 11 attacks. Since then, policymakers have placed more emphasis on cooperation with Beijing along with an increased emphasis on terrorism, the North Korean nuclear threat and other issues.
Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell boasted that relations with China were the best they had ever been. And even Rumsfeld made moves to begin restoring the military relationship with China.
Yet officials acknowledge that national security experts still debate how to counterbalance Beijing. Discussions now frequently center on what would be the most productive way to influence China’s development.
Although China was a key factor in the deal with India, it is not the administration’s only motive. Officials want to build up India as a democratic model for other countries. They believe that it is environmentally desirable to expand the civilian nuclear power capability of India, which is both energy-poor and a large producer of greenhouse gases.
And officials believe that a stronger alliance with India can boost U.S. business with the country, which has already grown from $14 billion to $30 billion in the last five years -- an impressive gain but only a fraction of the United States’ $300-billion annual trade with China.
Speaking to students in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad on Friday, Bush said the deal would relieve pressure on oil prices. “When a fast-growing country like India consumes more fossil fuels, it causes the price of fossil fuels to go up not only in India, but around the world,” he said.
Some analysts said the deal could have unhappy consequences for the United States by encouraging the Chinese to undertake a similar deal with Pakistan. U.S. officials would be irked at the idea that unstable Pakistan’s arsenal was growing, they said.
“The Chinese are practical, so they might go along” with the deal, said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. diplomat at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
In Pakistan, military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa-Agha said the United States was interested in “cozying up to India primarily because it sees it as a force that could be used to neutralize China’s military power.” But she warned that the move could undermine Bush’s efforts to rein in terrorism because it weakens a key ally, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who lacks a similar prize to show for his cooperation with the United States against Muslim militants.
Although analysts in China have also interpreted the deal as a sign of U.S. interest in building a counterweight to Beijing, officials there have so far offered little reaction to the deal.
Dong Manyuan, a research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said he didn’t expect a strong official response. “So far the Chinese government doesn’t seem upset,” he said.
Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna, Paul Watson in Bombay, India, and Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this report.