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Atal, Bush clear hi-tech hurdle

New York, Sept. 12: The way has been cleared for scrapping restrictions on Indo-US cooperation in space and nuclear energy following a 35-minute meeting here today between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President George W. Bush.

The restrictions, which were in force even before India’s nuclear tests in 1998, were tightened by the Bill Clinton administration after India declared itself a nuclear weapons state.

So severe were the restrictions imposed on India that anyone associated with nuclear and space technology was denied visas to visit America even for academic conferences.

In the run-up to today’s meeting between Vajpayee and Bush, the chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), K. Kasturirangan, and head of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Anil Kakodkar were in the US for preliminary talks envisaging Indo-US cooperation in space and nuclear energy.

Briefing reporters on the Vajpayee-Bush meeting, external affairs ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao was circumspect about such co-operation.

She said the two leaders had agreed to explore the possibility of increased cooperation in “diverse forms of energy”, space, high technology, commerce and science.

If India and the US go ahead with joint activity in space and nuclear energy, it will be a quantum leap in their bilateral relations, which underwent a fundamental transformation following Clinton’s visit to India two-and-a-half years ago.

The US has traditionally opposed India’s space programme because of its possible military potential and because India is outside the framework of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Washington has in the past criticised Soviet — and later Russian — help for India’s programme and pressured Moscow unsuccessfully to stop such assistance.

On nuclear co-operation, the Americans have been steadfastly opposed to the Indian programme since the first nuclear tests in 1974. Successive administrations have declined to co-operate with India even in the areas of peaceful or civilian use, including energy.

Although it would be unrealistic to expect the Americans to work with India on any military aspect of New Delhi’s nuclear programme, the way is now open for co-operation on nuclear energy.

Vajpayee’s meeting with Bush, which was held at America’s permanent mission to the UN, reviewed the progress of Indo-US relations in the context of their first meeting last year in Washington.

The two leaders noted the qualitative transformation of these relations, especially in the areas of defence and counter-terrorism, Rao said. The US has just announced a fresh arms sale to India.

That the two leaders discussed terrorism was obvious from the spokeswoman’s assertion that bilateral relations were reviewed in the context of changes in the international environment. This description is seen as a reference to the post-September 11 developments.

Predictably, Bush, who devoted a major portion of his address to the UN General Assembly today to Iraq, brought up the question of the looming US confrontation with Saddam Hussein in his talks with Vajpayee.

At the time of going to press, national security adviser Brajesh Mishra was following up on the meeting of the two leaders at a lunch with US counterpart Condoleezza Rice. Mishra will later today meet US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.

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