WASHINGTON -- India has agreed to work towards joining the Paris Agreement on climate change this year, India and the United States said on Tuesday, giving a jolt of momentum to the international fight to curb global warming.
At a time of heightened tensions in Asia over China's assertive pursuit of territory, the two countries also pledged to expand military cooperation and outlined principles for cooperation on cyber issues.
President Barack Obama welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House for their seventh meeting since Modi took office in 2014, underscoring the warm relationship between the leaders and the world's two largest democracies. Modi is to address the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.
"We discussed how we can, as quickly as possible, bring the Paris Agreement into force," Obama told reporters. Climate change is a legacy issue for the U.S. president who leaves office in January.
India's potential entrance into the agreement this year would help accelerate its enactment, perhaps years ahead of schedule. India is the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the United States.
The two countries also welcomed preparations that could lead to the building of six nuclear reactors in India by U.S.-based Westinghouse, in what would be the culmination of some 10 years of work to resolve civil-nuclear issues.
The joint statement said India and the U.S. Export-Import Bank were working to complete a financing package for the project and that the Nuclear Power Corporation of India and Westinghouse had confirmed engineering and site design work would begin immediately.
It said Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India would work toward finalizing the contract by June 2017 - a year later than Westinghouse's chief executive, Daniel Roderick, said he hoped for in an interview with Reuters in late March.
Modi told an event organized by the U.S. India Business Council that relations between India and the United States were "closer than ever." He said the planned reactor purchases would mark new era in nuclear and scientific cooperation.
Modi's address to a joint session of Congress will be a significant personal step. Although this has become an tradition for Indian prime ministers, he was once banned from the United States over massacres of Muslims.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002 when Modi had just become the state's chief minister. Modi has denied any wrongdoing, and India's Supreme Court in 2010 ruled there was no case.
In the joint statement, the United States said it now recognized India as a "Major Defense Partner" and would work on technology sharing "to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners."
The text of a logistics agreement, which will allow the countries' militaries to use each other's land, air and naval bases, would be signed soon, a U.S. official said.
Tensions between the United States and Pakistan as well as regional concerns about China have served as a backdrop to increased security cooperation.
Senator John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said the address to Congress was "entirely appropriate" given the new partnership.
"There’s no doubt there are significant tensions and challenges in the region, which argues for closer coordination between our militaries," he said.
While Modi is generally popular with U.S. lawmakers, they criticize what they see as lingering unfriendliness to U.S. firms and a stifling bureaucracy, in spite of Modi's pro-business image. They also question New Delhi's record on human rights.
Modi got a boost on Tuesday when Amazon Inc AMZN.O Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said his company would invest an additional $3 billion in India, boosting its committed investment in the country to over $5 billion.
CLIMATE CHANGE PROGRESS
Obama and Modi agreed to work together on an "ambitious" amendment to an international pact known as the Montreal Protocol to reduce hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
The two countries said India would take steps to join the Paris agreement this year.
"India and the United States recognize the urgency of climate change and share the goal of enabling entry into force of the Paris Agreement as early as possible," the joint statement said.
"The United States reaffirms its commitment to join the agreement as soon as possible this year. India similarly has begun its processes to work toward this shared objective."
The agreement, forged in 2015, will take effect when at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions ratify it. By late last month 17 small countries had ratified it, according to the United Nations, and many others including the United States and China have pledged to do so in 2016.
Environmental groups had hoped Modi would say that India was ready to ratify the agreement during his Washington trip.
“With India now on board, a growing chorus of countries are seeking to bring the Paris Agreement into full effect as soon as possible," Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said in a statement.