US President George W. Bush's recent visit to India is a significant development. From India's viewpoint, it confers a certain degree of legitimacy on its nu-clear status. The US has undertaken [subject to the approval of the agreement signed in New Delhi by the US Congress] to provide civilian nuclear technology for India's nuclear energy program. This had been banned following India's nuclear weapons testing in 1974 and 1998. India, though, has agreed to accept inspections of its civilian nuclear reactors by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Of its 22 reactors, eight that are involved in military related programs will not be subject to IAEA inspections. In other words, the IAEA will be allowed access to 14 civilian reactors, but that access will be subject to negotiations contingent on IAEA request. It is, therefore, a mixed picture for India.
The plus for India is that it will get access to material and technology from the US, and with its help, from other countries as well. And it will be able to do this without having to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The progress of India's nu-clear energy program had slowed because of sanctions from the US and other countries. The lifting of sanctions will enable India to diversify its energy sources from an ever growing dependence on oil from the Middle East, where production at existing fields is believed to have peaked and will soon start to decline. It is also becoming prohibitively expensive.
The minus, from the viewpoint of Indian critics of the deal, is that it might bring the IAEA into the Indian nuclear program through the back door.
The nuclear deal, in a sense, underpins a new strategic relationship between the two countries, with the US recognizing India's status as an important regional power and seeking to enmesh it into its own global strategy. It is in this context that India's potential as a counterweight to China is highlighted.
It is argued that the US regards China as a future threat to its supremacy, and is keen to contain its growing power. India, too, sees China as a security threat. According to this argument, their shared threat perception, and the need to contain China, is the basis of this newly emerging strategic equation.
And this might persuade India at some point to become part of the containment ring said to already include the US, Japan and Australia.
It is true that India and China are not the best of friends. They fought a border war in 1962, and that dispute is still not resolved. Their relationship was further complicated when the then Indian government sought to justify its nuclear testing [and hence its nuclear weapons program] in 1998 because of a perceived threat to the country's security from a nuclear-armed China.
Their relationship, though, has considerably improved in the last few years, with growing trade and expanded contacts and exchanges in all areas.
But it is also a wary relationship, lacking trust on both sides. Even though India has accepted that Tibet is part of China, Bei-jing is distrustful as India continues to play host to the Dalai Lama and his entourage as refugees.
The disputed boundary is a constant thorn, even when it is a dormant issue. China has, now and then, regarded India as an imperialist creation -- an artificial nation. That might not now be the case, but Beijing continues to regard India with suspicion of being under US influence.