Indian and US officials worked to hammer out the contentious details of a landmark civilian nuclear cooperation pact, a deal touted as the cornerstone of an emerging US-India alliance -- but one proving to be anything but.
Both sides had hoped to finalize the deal before US President George W. Bush visits India next week. Instead, problems concluding the agreement are exposing deep differences in how each side perceives India's role in the world's nuclear community.
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns met for a second day on Friday with his Indian counterpart, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, to discuss the deal, which was signed in July and faces approval by a skeptical US Congress.
Following the talks, India's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "there was greater clarity on the issues under discussion," and that "progress has been made."
Burns told reporters that there were issues the two countries have to resolve and that might take some time. He didn't elaborate.
"The two governments are trying very hard to see our way through to the finish line. The deal hasn't been accomplished yet," he said.
Indian and US officials have in recent days expressed doubts about completing the deal before Bush arrives on Wednesday.
Even Bush appears to have given up on that goal -- he said that he now hopes to finalize the deal while in India.
But once completed, he said the deal would help create an international nuclear community where supplier nations, such as the US, provide nuclear fuel to countries "developing civilian nuclear energy programs," like India.
The supplier nations would then handle the reprocessing of spent fuel, he said in a speech on Wednesday to the Asia Society in Washington. Reprocessing can be used to make weapons-grade nuclear material.
But India has nuclear weapons, and has long been able to reprocess its own spent fuel -- in fact, reprocessing is key to its tightly entwined civilian and military atomic programs. India's nuclear establishment also does not consider the country a developing atomic power, even if its nuclear program is modest in size.
"We have had the ability to reprocess since 1965, but Bush is proposing that our right to do so be taken away," said M.R. Srinivasan, a member of the Indian government's Atomic Energy Commission, which has played a support role in the talks on the nuclear pact.
"That is not acceptable, we are not a `developing' nuclear nation," he said.
The pact marks a major policy shift for the US, which imposed sanctions on India in 1998 after it conducted nuclear tests. The restrictions have since been lifted.
Apart from being hailed as a symbol of the growing ties between India and the US, the deal is also considered to be part of a broader effort by Washington and New Delhi to balance China's growing economic and political influence in Asia.