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Nuclear Testing Jeopardizes Better U.S.-India Relations

By Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post

This is not what Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had in mind when she went to India late last year to promote a wide-ranging new relationship of cooperation that would lay to rest the years of Cold War suspicion between Washington and New Delhi.

With its announcement Monday that it had tested three nuclear weapons, India brushed aside a series of appeals from the Clinton administration, which as recently as last week had cautioned against such a step. The news caught the United States by surprise and drew strong criticism from senior officials, who said they are considering tough U.S. economic sanctions.

The announcement negated what the State Department, in its most recent report to Congress on the nuclear threat in South Asia, had called "a top U.S. priority" - persuading India not to resume testing.

In the broader relationship between the two countries, the tests could ruin years of effort by the administration. The Commerce Department, through its "Big Emerging Markets" program, has fostered U.S. investment in India's formerly closed economy. The State Department has sought not only to end the South Asian arms race but to begin a new relationship with India, which was aligned with Moscow during the Cold War.

Some independent analysts said the damage could be limited if India, having demonstrated the ability and the political will to test, now signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But officials said they detected no signs Monday of such an outcome.

"We are deeply disappointed by India's decision to test nuclear weapons," White House national security adviser Sandy Berger said. Berger said President Clinton has not abandoned his plan to visit India later this year, because "we have a better chance at de-escalating, or at least slowing, these kinds of actions if we remain engaged than if we don't."

Another senior official, speaking on condition he not be named, said the Indian announcement was "a kick in the teeth" because India's top cabinet aides had assured U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson during his recent visit that they wanted improved ties to the United States, and gave him no hint they were contemplating underground tests.

Richardson recommended Indian "restraint" in response to a recent Pakistani missile test, as did other officials in meetings here with an Indian delegation last week, a State Department official said.

"I'm very disappointed," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and a longtime advocate of better relations. "It's certainly going to strain our relations," which he said have been "better in the past two or three years than at any time in history."

The Indian tests are "a shocking development, and an enormous blow to our relationship," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the region. He called for quick implementation of sanctions that appear to be mandatory under U.S. law.

The law requires the president, within 30 days of certifying that any country other than the five declared nuclear powers has exploded a nuclear device, to cut off all military sales and aid, block all credit and loan guarantees by U.S. government agencies, oppose loans in international development banks, block credit by private U.S. banks and prohibit the export of any technology that could be used for military purposes. The sanctions are mandatory - no waiver is authorized.

The United States is India's biggest trading partner, although the overall commercial relationship is relatively small: two-way trade exceeded $9 billion in 1995, the last year for which the State Department had complete figures. U.S. companies accounted for 42 percent of all foreign investment in India in the first half of this decade, according to the Commerce Department.

Washington has never been a major supplier of economic or military aid to India.