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'N-deal's fine, but watch out for China'

Indo-US deal will sail through Congress but China may "raise questions", says former Dy Secretary Strobe Talbott.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2006 22:05 IST

The India-US civil nuclear deal will sail through the US Congress but China may "raise questions" about excepting New Delhi from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), said Strobe Talbott, a key interlocutor on nuclear issues during the Clinton presidency.

"Relax, everything is going to be fine in the Senate. The nuclear deal is going to sail through the US Congressional process," Talbott, former US deputy secretary of state, told an audience, compromising diplomats and media in New Delhi, on Monday.

"I will be astonished if it doesn't go to the president's desk this year, hopefully before the Congressional elections in November," Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington-based think tank, said in his lecture on the 'US foreign policy in a presidential election season'.

The interactive discussion was organised by the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think-tank specialising in strategic issues.

Talbott also clarified that despite some confusion in a section of the Indian media, leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton, a potential presidential candidate, have come out in support of the n-deal.

His remarks are significant coming as they do amid uncertainties about the passage of the nuclear waiver bill in the US Senate and whether the final contours of the nuclear legislation will conform to the July 18, 2005 understanding between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush.

The Senate is likely to vote on the India-US civil nuclear deal in the ongoing session before the Congressional elections in November. He, however, clarified that India was not an issue in elections, but it is Iraq that is going to be the source of "bitter debate".

"Whatever be the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, there is going to be a president of the US who will be committed to a new relationship with India," Talbott said.

"India will be granted an exception to the NPT. Does India deserve that exception? Arguably, it does. It has a very good record regarding the export of dangerous technologies," he said.

Pakistan, by contrast, Talbott said, has an "absolutely lousy record in proliferation".

But the larger problem, he pointed out, is the future of the NPT. "Other countries may be asking for exceptions to the NPT. My guess is that China will raise this question in the NSG. They could ask why this exception to the NPT should be country-specific," he said.

Talbott, who is better known in strategic circles in India for his dialogue with the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh on nuclear engagement with India, also allayed apprehensions about new elements allegedly being introduced in the civil nuclear deal that might not be acceptable to India, like a ban on nuclear testing and a moratorium on production of fissile material.

Such fears, he said, can be traced to an ignorance of the American political system based on the principle of separation of powers.

"There are fears that there might be killer amendments to the Senate version of the waiver bill. But the deal will go through," he predicted.

"Reporting responsibilities are on part of the American president. None of this constitutes an infringement of India's sovereignty. It will be the responsibility of the president. The onus is not on India," he clarified.

Talbott was referring to the requirements mentioned in the draft version of the Senate bill asking the US president to report to the Congress on whether India had conducted a nuclear test or increased its inventory of fissile material.

He said while most Democrats were in favour of a nuclear engagement with India, there is a feeling that the Bush administration could have driven a "harder bargain, specially regarding the production of fissile material".

In his book Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, Talbott had outlined five benchmarks - signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), export controls, strategic restraint, moratorium on the production of fissile material and progress in the relationship between India and Pakistan - for New Delhi before the US could resume civil nuclear cooperation with it.

"Only the last condition has been fulfilled," he said.