October 4, 2008

Rice Lauds U.S. N-Deal With India

By Robert Burns Associated Press

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- A historic and highly sensitive deal that opens up U.S. nuclear trade with India should trigger an across-the-board improvement in U.S. relations with the Asian giant, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday en route to New Delhi.

The agreement on civil nuclear cooperation allows American businesses to begin selling nuclear fuel, technology and reactors to India in exchange for safeguards and U.N. inspections at India's civilian -- but not military -- nuclear plants.

U.S. opponents say it undermines international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons; critics in India argue that it compromises their country's right to conduct nuclear bomb tests.

Speaking to reporters aboard her plane, which stopped at Ramstein to refuel, Rice said it was not certain whether she would sign the agreement during her one-day visit because "there are a lot of administrative details left to be worked out." U.S. legislation authorizing the controversial deal won final congressional approval on Wednesday. Rice said President Bush looks forward to signing the bill, but that is not a precondition for her discussions in New Delhi.

Whether a signing ceremony is held or not, "I'm going to draw a line under this" deal "one way or another because it's time to put the historic agreement -- to say that that's done and move on to what else we can do" to strengthen and broaden the relationship, she added. The Bush administration considers the deal a crowning achievement of the president's second term in office.

It could, however, turn out to be the last major diplomatic achievement of a presidency that is struggling in its final months on a number of other fronts, including a setback in relations with Russia after its invasion of Georgia and the prospect of a breakdown in a nuclear agreement with North Korea.

Rice said she spoke Friday morning with the administration's chief nuclear envoy to North Korea, Christopher Hill, who was in Pyongyang this week to try to persuade the North Koreans to resume dismantling their nuclear problem in exchange for energy aid. She said she and Hill did not discuss what progress he may have made; they intend to meet Monday in Washington.

In the onboard interview, Rice stressed that she saw the importance of her visit to New Delhi as focusing on the future, rather than celebrating the completion of the civil nuclear agreement.

"This is a relationship that has now a firm foundation to reach its full potential," she said. "It removes for India a barrier to full integration on a whole range of technologies," and it opens the way for closer U.S.-India cooperation in other areas such as defense, agriculture and education. India built its nuclear bombs outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it refuses to sign. It has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974; its most recent nuclear test blast was in 1998.

Throughout the Cold War, relations between India and the United States were chilly. In the past decade, however, ties have grown closer in a range of areas, including trade, energy and security. The United States is now India's largest trading partner.

U.S. opponents of the nuclear agreement say lawmakers rushed consideration of a complicated deal that could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia. The extra fuel the measure allows India to purchase, those critics say, could boost India's nuclear bomb stockpile by freeing up its domestic fuel for weapons.

Increasingly, India figures into U.S. strategic interests in other ways, including its long standoff with neighboring Pakistan. The Pakistani government has focused so much on what it perceives as an Indian threat that it has limited its security efforts against militants along its border with Afghanistan. That, in turn, has facilitated cross-border attacks by Taliban and al-Qaida extremists targeting U.S. and Afghan troops in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Noting that the Bush administration is undertaking a broad review of its strategy in Afghanistan, Rice said she sees merit in a shift of U.S. and allied focus toward improving Afghan governance, particularly at the local level where tribal influences traditionally are strongest.

"We've spent a lot of time, rightly, making certain that we're working toward a really functioning central government that can extend its grip into the provinces," she said. "But I personally feel that we have not done as much as we need to improve local governance."

Rice also said she has ordered the State Department to review how civil-military teams in Afghanistan, known as provincial reconstruction teams, could be improved in light of lessons learned from similar operations in Iraq over the past year.

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