Washington: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to fly on Friday to India to sign a civilian nuclear deal, a landmark in a budding strategic partnership and a foreign policy win for the Bush administration.
Rice got the green light after both houses of Congress in the last week voted for the agreement which lifts a ban on civilian nuclear trade imposed after India first conducted a nuclear test explosion in 1974.
The deal “bolsters our partnership with the world’s largest democracy and a growing economic power, and will provide economic and job opportunities for our economy,” she said in a statement ahead of her trip.
Rice will sign the agreement, which governs US-India trade in nuclear know-how, equipment and fuel, during her weekend trip to New Delhi, said Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Rood.
The top US diplomat was to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is expected to sign on behalf of his government
But before US firms can reap the benefits, Delhi must sign a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, and a convention on liability.
“At the government level, we still have work to do in order to implement this,” Rood said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the US Arms Control Association, said India has also not provided to the IAEA a list of civilian nuclear reactors that would be open for inspections - a step before the safeguards agreement.
The US Chamber of Commerce said that with India’s 34-year nuclear isolation now history, a potential $150 billion of new investments were expected in terms of new nuclear generating capacity by 2030.
“Companies like GE (General Electric) and Westinghouse, we think, are quite capable of competing there. The other international players, whether they be French or Russian, will be there I’m sure in a substantial margin,” Rood said.
But Kimball said state-backed Russian and French firms may have the edge as they will worry less about liability issues than private US firms, which must wait until India signs the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage.
India wrote a letter of intent last month to do so, said Kimball.
Russian firms have an extra advantage because they are cheaper and India is used to their technology, he added.
But most of all, Kimball charges that the deal with India, which has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, undermines the standards against the spread of nuclear know-how that the United States helped develop over decades.
Rood said the nuclear deal is part of a broader “strategic partnership” in which the United States helps meet the energy demands of a booming economy, sees trade with India rise, and cooperates with New Delhi on counter-terrorism.
“We have a budding defense relationship which has grown substantially,” he added.
President George W Bush, who scored a key foreign policy success following the fast tracked congressional passage of the nuclear agreement, said he looked forward to signing the nuclear deal into law.
The two countries had spent three years negotiating the deal since Bush and Singh first agreed to it in 2005 as part of a strategic partnership between the two biggest democracies.
During her trip, Rice will also meet with Indian opposition leader L.K. Advani of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which together with the communists had slammed the nuclear deal, saying it would curb India’s military options and bring the country’s foreign policy too much under US influence.
Rice will also visit Kazakhstan after India.