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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 March 2006, 01:16 GMT
US nurtures key South Asia ties
By Jonathan Beale
BBC state department correspondent

President Bush meets Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005
India is an important democratic ally for the US
Cast your mind back to George W Bush, the presidential candidate.

When asked to name Pakistan's leader in a now infamous television interview, the best he could do was "General".

The would-be president fared even worse when asked to name India's then prime minister.

Today, though, he is on intimate terms with both countries' leaders. India and Pakistan are now this American president's friends and allies.

This week, on a visit to South Asia, he aims to deepen their relationship.

Democratic example

India is a growing global force: a country of a billion people, an emerging middle class the size of the entire US population, one of the world's fastest growing economies. All reason enough for this president to take an interest.

Bhabha atomic plant outside Mumbai, India
Bush wants India to separate civilian and military nuclear activities

Of course, he is wary of India's impact on the US economy, but to President Bush, this relationship is much more than economics.

India is the world's biggest democracy, a shining, though not perfect, example of the kinds of values President Bush wants to spread around the world.

As one of his former advisers put it: "India has 150 million Muslims, but no al-Qaeda."

Mr Bush's hope is that India can influence its less democratic neighbours, most notably China.

Nuclear deal

As proof that President Bush wants to encourage and reward India, he has taken the highly unusual step of offering US help with its civilian nuclear programme.

"Unusual" because India is one of only three countries that has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India has gone on to secretly develop and test nuclear weapons.

So why is President Bush willing to help?

India will soon emerge as the strongest ally of the US and together form an axis of economic superpowers
Vijay Singh Dahima, Mumbai

It would mean India separating its civilian and military nuclear activities and opening up its peaceful nuclear facilities to international inspections, which the US sees this as a way of bringing India into the non-proliferation "team", if not into the treaty itself.

However, there is strong opposition to the agreement in Delhi and Washington.

The US Congress would have to approve any deal, and some politicians believe that bending the rules for India now would send entirely the wrong signal to Iran and North Korea. There is still no guarantee that President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will sign on the dotted line.

Easy ride?

It would have been impossible for the US president to visit India and ignore Pakistan.

The Bush administration claims to have "de-hyphenated" the relationship between the two after a near war in 2002, but both countries still watch each other anxiously.

President Pervez Musharraf
Pakistan's support for the US has sparked domestic opposition

No doubt, Pakistan would also like US help with its civilian nuclear programme. But there will not be any such offer, given AQ Khan's murky involvement in the nuclear black market.

Instead, President Bush will want to offer moral support to President Pervez Musharraf for his help in the US's "war on terror".

That has come at a price, so do not expect Mr Bush to push the "General" too hard on issues like democratic reform and the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

Despite America's swift response to last year's earthquake, the US is still not loved here. The US president may be aware of hostile demonstrations.

That is one good reason to make this part of the visit short.

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