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Saturday, March 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S.-Indian nuclear deal designed as China hedge

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — 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, 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 ambitions unclear, such a hedge is an important component of U.S. strategy.

The Bush administration has made nuclear nonproliferation one of its top priorities, and is now trying to limit nuclear ambitions of Iran. But in forging the pact with India, there is a cost. Many experts believe the U.S.-India agreement is likely to convince non-nuclear nations that they can proceed with bomb-building programs in the face of international disapproval, and eventually win back American support anyway.

In the past, the Bush administration has stressed the importance of the U.S.-Japanese strategic relationship to ensure it has a close and capable ally on China's southeast flank. The deal with India reflects an American desire to build an alliance on China's southwest edge. The agreement lifts a moratorium on civilian nuclear cooperation and permits India's continued work on nuclear arms.

U.S. officials didn't mention China this week as they publicly detailed the new agreement. 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 U.S.-India strategic policy, has argued publicly that allowing India build up its nuclear arsenal is not only in New Delhi's interest, but Washington's. An Indian nuclear arsenal will cause Beijing to worry more about India — and less about the United States, contends Tellis, who is an Indian-American.

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 contain the Soviet Union. Experts said it is more accurate to describe the U.S. 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 Center for Pacific Affairs 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 old border disputes and an agreement aimed at reducing competition for oil.

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Yet some experts warn 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 the western province of Baluchistan, where Pakistan claims India is backing insurgents to destabilize the region.

Under Thursday's deal, India retained the right to deny U.N. inspectors access to a fast-breeder reactor suitable for producing weapons-grade fissile material. Since India refused to agree to a production cap, there is no limit on the expansion of India's nuclear arsenal — a fact that critics say could provoke a regional arms race.

At the beginning of Bush's first term, dealing with China's growing power was a top priority of many policymakers, beginning with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-deputy Paul Wolfowitz. Meeting the challenge of China was a central tenet of the "neoconservative" creed associated with Bush's inner circle.

But China lost its top priority spot 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.

Yet, officials acknowledge that national-security experts still debate how to counterbalance China. Discussions now frequently center on what is the most productive way to influence China's development as a nation.

While China was a key factor in the deal with India, it is not the administration's only motive. Administration officials want to build up India as a democratic model for other countries. They believed 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 bring a boom in U.S. business with the country, which has already grown from $14 billion to $30 million in the past five years — an impressive gain but only a tiny fraction of the $300 billion a year U.S.-China trade.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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