New Delhi: Two previously scheduled visits—by defence minister A.K. Antony to the US and Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi to India—take on greater significance after New Delhi won re-entry into international nuclear commerce at a landmark meeting in Vienna on the weekend.
The twin visits could be a litmus test of India’s relationship with two of the world’s most powerful countries after the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on Saturday gave India a waiver that would allow it access to nuclear material and technology without signing international pacts governing their export.
Big gain: (from left) National security adviser M.K. Narayanan, external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee and Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar in New Delhi on Saturday. (Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI)
But, even as India’s complex relationship with China takes another turn, a top government official conceded that the manner in which the Bush administration went out of its way to push the Indian waiver at NSG had confirmed the US was India’s newest best friend.
Antony’s visit would seek to take the momentum generated by the waiver to the US Congress when it reconvenes Monday for a few weeks, before US presidential elections are held in November.
“India has a gentleman’s understanding with the US. Even though the NSG waiver now allows us to undertake nuclear-related commerce with other countries like Russia and France, we will wait for the Indo-US deal to pass in the US Congress,” said the official who requested anonymity.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not able to reach Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday night to seek support for the nuclear deal, after the Chinese delegation at NSG in Vienna wanted to postpone talks and even threatened to walk out, people familiar with the development say.
A disturbed Delhi, which was in constant touch with the Bush administration, all through those testing hours in Vienna, realized that if the Chinese did not comply with the consensus, the nuclear deal was as good as dead. That is when US President George W. Bush decided to speak to his Chinese counterpart in Beijing.
In the end, the Chinese delegation invoked the “silence procedure” at NSG, that is, they did not speak when a consensus was being reached.
A Western diplomat, who did not wish to be named, said national security adviser M.K. Narayanan and his US counterpart Steve Hadley “virtually kept an open telephone line these past few days, as they strategized on the NSG waiver together.”
Antony, during his visit to Washington this week, will meet US defence secretary Robert Gates, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Hadley.
While an Indian decision to buy 126 fighter jets, or multi-role combat aircraft, still has to undergo due process at home, it is widely believed that the multi-billion dollar deal would in the end be linked to politics.
“Now that the Indo-US deal is well on its way to fruition, it is more than likely that one of the two American companies, either Boeing Co. or Lockheed Martin Corp., will win the deal,” an Indian official said.
Prime Minister Singh will be visiting Washington on 25 September before he speaks at the UN General Assembly session on 26 September. The thanksgiving visit to meet President Bush is highly unusual, because Indian prime ministers never usually break UN-related protocol and undertake side visits to meet the US president.
Already, Indian and US officials, both in Washington and in Delhi, are working on clearing procedural matters before the so-called 123 Agreement can be introduced before the US Congress.
Democrat vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden has been contacted for supporting a waiver of House rules that any piece of legislation must be discussed before the House for 90 days.
The US Congress is scheduled to be in session till 26 September and both sides hope the “up-down” (yes-no) vote will take place by the time Singh arrives in Washington.
Meanwhile, as Chinese foreign minister Yang arrived in Kolkata to open a Chinese consulate on Sunday, within 24 hours of Vienna’s nuclear waiver, external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee stressed in Kolkata that comrade Yang is a “distinguished guest to India and I welcome him.”
But, a person familiar with the situation, who sought anonymity, said Delhi was still divided over the “kind of treatment” that Yang should be given during his visit. An appointment with Congress party president Sonia Gandhi was still not confirmed till Sunday evening for the Chinese leader, who meets the Prime Minister on Monday.