The Bush administration's recent decision to sell India civilian nuclear technology, announced in July, has set off a predictable firestorm of criticism from nonproliferation advocates. The arguments the critics make are well-known and amply rehearsed: giving such a concession to India will reward irresponsible behavior (i.e., developing nuclear weapons while keeping aloof from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime); it will encourage further proliferation (from states such as Iran, North Korea, Brazil, and Pakistan); and it will spur sales to potential proliferators by other nuclear suppliers (such as China, France, and Russia). Even if familiar and superficially plausible, however, all these criticisms are without merit.

U.S. law has prohibited the sale of civilian nuclear technology to non-NPT member states, including India, since 1978. The nuclear tests that India conducted in May 1998 automatically triggered additional, congressionally mandated sanctions. After those tests, in an attempt to prevent India (and Pakistan) from going further down the nuclear path, then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott opened negotiations with the Indian Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh. After fourteen rounds of talks, the two men's formal positions remained far apart. Talbott could not persuade Singh to yield on most of the core issues they had discussed, including the things he wanted most -- an end to India's missile tests and the dismantling of India's existing nuclear arsenal. Singh did agree, however, to tighten India's export controls and start a dialogue with Pakistan.

Despite their failure to produce much agreement, Talbott and Singh's negotiations generated considerable personal bonhomie and inaugurated a closer bilateral relationship between the India and the United States during the last days of the second Clinton administration. This did not lead to the lifting of the various layers of US sanctions, however, because the White House was unwilling to push hard for changes in the existing legal regime constraining South Asia policy. For the Clinton administration, in other words, the pursuit of nonproliferation goals and calm relations with Congress trumped the desire for better relations with a rapidly growing and increasingly assertive regional power.

This started to change under President George W. Bush. From the outset his administration has granted India the prominence it seeks (and arguably deserves). Indeed, even before Bush was elected, his principal foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice was noting in the pages of Foreign Affairs India's rise as a regional power. Once in office, the Bush team quickened the pace of bilateral military-to-military contacts, agreed to a modest but critical number of weapons sales, and decided that relations with India would no longer be held hostage to Pakistani misgivings and objections.

The sudden revival of the U.S.-Pakistan military relationship after 9/11 did not come at India's expense, as the administration took care to continue its engagement with Delhi even while raising Pakistan's profile in the American security policy calculus. This careful balancing act was sorely tested, however, when yet another crisis broke out on the subcontinent, triggered by a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001. The terrorists were members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-i-Taiba, Pakistan-based organizations seeking to wrest the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir from India's grasp. India responded with heated coercive diplomacy designed to end Pakistan's support for the insurgency in Kashmir. As tensions mounted sharply over the next several months, the Bush administration deftly managed to maintain strong relations with both states and ultimately played a useful role in defusing the crisis.

The administration's adroitness was not lost on Indian policymakers, and soon the momentum of discussions on military-to-military contacts and technology and weapons sales increased. This led to a January 2004 agreement on "Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership," under the aegis of which the two sides addressed the sale of civilian nuclear technology as well as joint space exploration, missile defense, and high-technology trade. Some progress has been made on all these fronts, and mutual concerns about the reliability of commitments are now being tackled. The administration's recent decision to allow the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India is a crucial part of this ongoing rapprochement.

All this might explain why the Bush administration wanted to make the move, but what about the arguments against doing so that the White House supposedly ignored? It turns out that in practice they were not so much ignored as rejected, and for good reasons. Regarding the charge of rewarding irresponsible behavior, the administration came to the (correct) conclusion that India was refusing to accede to the NPT not because of a secret desire to proliferate but because of a fundamental objection to the treaty's lopsided nature. Even as it has refused to accede to the treaty, accordingly, India has agreed to separate out its weapons programs and place all its civilian nuclear facilities under the same full-scope safeguards required of NPT signatories.

As for the charge of encouraging other potential rogue proliferators, this has little merit because India is not really a rogue -- it never signed on to the NPT in the first place and so has a legitimate claim not to feel bound by its provisions. The real rogues are countries such as Iran and North Korea, who signed on and then made a mockery of the regime and its enforcement. Pakistan, it is true, has also never signed on, but its stance is far more rogue-like than India's because it has a demonstrated record as a major and egregious proliferator of nuclear technology. A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani metallurgist who ran a global nuclear bazaar, today lives comfortably in Islamabad after an anodyne public reprimand followed by a prompt pardon. India, in contrast, has spurned overtures from Libya and Iran despite receiving tempting offers of cash and oil in return for assistance with their nuclear weapons programs.

Regarding the final charge, that the agreement will encourage other nuclear suppliers to peddle civilian nuclear technology recklessly, such a concern is baseless because it rests on the false assumption that the deal with India is itself reckless -- which it is not. Should the Russians, for example, try to use the deal as a precedent for selling nuclear technology to either Israel or Pakistan (the only other states currently outside the NPT), the recipient will have to separate its nuclear weapons program from its civilian energy program and accept full-scope IAEA safeguards, just as India has done -- which would make the sale essentially unproblematic.

In sum, providing India with civilian nuclear technology will enable the country to address its dire energy needs and limit the dangers of nuclear accidents at antiquated plants while cementing its growing strategic relationship with the United States. Those advocating a strategy of technology denial see India through the narrow and parochial prism of nonproliferation. When the country was viewed by policymakers as poor, weak, and strategically irrelevant, the arguments of such "functionalists" inside the American foreign policy and national security apparatus could trump the arguments of the "regionalists" arguing for a more mature, multifaceted, and flexible bilateral relationship. Now that India has risen in importance, the regionalists have gained the upper hand (as they always have had, for example, with regard to Israel). It's about time.

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  • Sumit Ganguly holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations and is the Director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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