Image: Rice in India
Manish Swarup  /  AP
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee in New Delhi, India, on Saturday.
updated 10/4/2008 8:32:22 AM ET 2008-10-04T12:32:22

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in the Indian capital Saturday to commemorate — but not put her signature to — a historic deal that opens up U.S. nuclear trade with the Asia giant.

A signing ceremony that had been scheduled was dropped because, according to U.S. officials, a series of administrative steps have yet to be taken in Washington following Senate approval of authorizing legislation on Wednesday. Rice was meeting here with top government officials, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and political opposition leaders.

Speaking to reporters aboard her plane en route from Washington, Rice said she expects the civil nuclear cooperation agreement will trigger an across-the-board expansion of American-Indian relations.

Rice said only administrative — not substantive — matters were delaying the signing of the agreement.

President Bush has yet to sign the authorizing legislation, and once he does he is required to certify that the agreement with India is consistent with U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. He must also certify that it is U.S. policy to cooperate with international efforts to further restrict transfers of technology related to uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

The U.S. agreement on civil nuclear cooperation allows American businesses to begin selling nuclear fuel, technology and reactors to India in exchange for safeguards and U.N. inspections at India's civilian — but not military — nuclear plants.

Critics in India argue the constraints compromise their country's right to conduct nuclear bomb tests.

'I'm going to draw a line under this'
Even without a signing ceremony during her visit, Rice said, "I'm going to draw a line under this" deal "one way or another because it's time to put the historic agreement — to say that that's done and move on to what else we can do" to strengthen and broaden the relationship.

The Bush administration considers the deal a crowning achievement of the president's second term in office.

It could, however, turn out to be the last major diplomatic achievement of a presidency that is struggling in its final months on a number of other fronts, including a setback in relations with Russia after its invasion of Georgia and the prospect of a breakdown in a nuclear agreement with North Korea.

Rice said she spoke Friday morning with the administration's chief nuclear envoy to North Korea, Christopher Hill, who was in Pyongyang this week to try to persuade the North Koreans to resume dismantling their nuclear problem in exchange for energy aid. She said she and Hill did not discuss what progress he may have made; they intend to meet Monday in Washington.

In the onboard interview, Rice stressed that she saw the importance of her visit to New Delhi as focusing on the future, rather than celebrating the completion of the civil nuclear agreement.

"This is a relationship that has now a firm foundation to reach its full potential," she said. "It removes for India a barrier to full integration on a whole range of technologies," and it opens the way for closer U.S.-India cooperation in other areas such as defense, agriculture and education. India built its nuclear bombs outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it refuses to sign. It has faced a nuclear trade ban since its first atomic test in 1974; its most recent nuclear test blast was in 1998.

Gradual warming of relations
Throughout the Cold War, relations between India and the United States were chilly. In the past decade, however, ties have grown closer in a range of areas, including trade, energy and security. The United States is now India's largest trading partner.

U.S. opponents of the nuclear agreement say lawmakers rushed consideration of a complicated deal that could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia. The extra fuel the measure allows India to purchase, those critics say, could boost India's nuclear bomb stockpile by freeing up its domestic fuel for weapons.

Increasingly, India figures into U.S. strategic interests in other ways, including its long standoff with neighboring Pakistan. The Pakistani government has focused so much on what it perceives as an Indian threat that it has limited its security efforts against militants along its border with Afghanistan.

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