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Hyperbole is not unusual to describe meetings of heads of state. Yet the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the United States marks a genuine departure in relations between those two countries. The U.S. agreement to help India secure international assistance with its civilian nuclear-energy program is proof that Washington and Delhi have reached a new understanding.

Yet the willingness to aid India’s nuclear program challenges the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and both sides must be careful to avoid excessive expectations. The two countries have their own priorities and needs. Neither party can “use” the other for its own purposes.

When U.S. President George W. Bush took office in 2001, one of his goals was to transform U.S. relations with India, a nation that was laying the foundation as a future global power. The end of the Cold War and India’s economic resurgence provided the opportunity for India to play a larger role on the international stage. Washington was happy to encourage that process as Indian democracy was aligned with U.S. interests and because the U.S. anticipated that India would serve as a strategic counterweight to China.

The primary obstacle to a better relationship was Delhi’s nuclear-weapons program. With India’s failure to sign the NPT and its 1998 nuclear tests considered a threat to the NPT regime, the U.S. was reluctant to recognize India’s nuclear capabilities for fear of legitimizing its status as a nuclear power. That rankled India, as did U.S. support for Pakistan, which India viewed as a source of terrorism.

Yet this week Mr. Bush and Mr. Singh agreed that the U.S. would provide assistance to India’s civilian nuclear-energy program, even though Delhi would not renounce its nuclear weapons. The deal allows India to obtain nuclear fuel and reactor components from the U.S. and other countries in exchange for international inspections of, and safeguards on, its civilian nuclear program. India will also refrain from further weapons tests and from transfers of arms technology to other countries.

There are good reasons to accept the deal. India’s nuclear weapons are a fait accompli. International inspections of civilian nuclear programs are always to be encouraged. India has no record of proliferating nuclear technology and Mr. Singh pledged to keep that record intact. India needs energy to sustain the 7 percent economic growth that is crucial to its emergence as a global player. Helping India develop nuclear power also lessens the potential for its dependence on Iranian oil. And it lifts the stigma on Delhi due to its nuclear tests and lets India better integrate into the international community.

Indian officials say the agreement allows their country “to assume the same responsibilities and practices — no more and no less — of other nuclear states.” U.S. officials counter that they have not given up hope that India will eventually give up its nuclear arsenal and that Washington has denied Delhi’s request to be recognized as a nuclear-weapons state.

Although the logic behind the agreement makes sense, it will make it even more difficult to get North Korea and Iran, already in international negotiations over their suspected nuclear-weapons programs, to give them up. Those two countries can now hold out hope of winning similar recognition, the distinctiveness of Indian circumstances notwithstanding.

The nuclear deal was only part of a range of agreements that solidified the best relations between the two countries since Indian independence in 1947. The two leaders discussed and approved efforts to promote democracy, fight terrorists, combat AIDS, increase high-technology trade, and collaborate on space exploration. The two countries had already signed a 10-year agreement on defense cooperation last month that will facilitate joint weapons production and the possible lifting of restrictions on U.S. sales of sensitive military technologies.

India did not get everything it sought. Mr. Bush withheld U.S. support for a permanent Indian seat on the United Nations Security Council, saying U.N. reform had to come first.

Another country overshadows the U.S.-India relationship: China. Both governments deny that Beijing is a factor in their calculations, but both are wary of China’s growing strength. In fact, neither country can afford not to have good relations with China: Delhi has agreed to a strategic partnership with China, while the U.S. cooperates with China on a range of issues. All three governments are engaged in subtle balancing acts. Since each government’s own national interests will ultimately prevail, though, any notion of using one country against another is foolhardy. Still, a stronger partnership between the world’s sole superpower and its largest democracy is to be applauded.

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