US President George W. Bush began ushering India into the world's exclusive nuclear club this week with a landmark accord to share nuclear reactors, fuel and expertise in return for New Delhi's acceptance of international safeguards.
The deal between Washington and New Delhi, reached last week during a three-day visit to India by Bush, must be approved by the U.S. Congress. It represents a reversal of policy for the United States, which placed sanctions on New Delhi after India joined rival Pakistan in testing nuclear weapons in 1998.
The accord would end India's long isolation as a nuclear maverick that defied world appeals to develop nuclear weapons. India has agreed to separate its tightly entwined nuclear industry - declaring 14 reactors as commercial facilities and eight as military - and to open the civilian side to international inspections for the first time.
Bush, who was heading to Pakistan late Friday, acknowledged that it might be difficult to get the nuclear accord endorsed in the U.S. Congress because India still refuses to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"I'm trying to think differently, not stay stuck in the past," said Bush, who has made improving relations with India a goal of his administration. Celebrating their agreement, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "We have made history today, and I thank you."
The U.S.-India nuclear deal was seen as the centerpiece of better relations between the world's oldest and most powerful democracy and the world's largest and fastest-growing one.
The United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, gave its endorsement Thursday, calling the deal "an important step towards satisfying India's growing need for energy, including nuclear technology and fuel, as an engine for development." "It would also bring India closer as an important partner in the nonproliferation game," IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said in a statement.
However, Australia announced Friday that it would continue to bar its uranium sales to India until it signs the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
India has more than 1 billion people, and its booming economy has created millions of jobs along with consumer demands that have attracted American businesses. India's middle class has swelled to 300 million - more than the population of the United States.
Bush acknowledged that Washington and New Delhi were estranged during the Cold War, when India declared itself a nonaligned nation but tilted toward Moscow. "Now the relationship is changing dramatically," he said. The nuclear agreement drew fire from critics in the U.S. Congress.
"With one simple move the president has blown a hole in the nuclear rules that the entire world has been playing by and broken his own word to assure that we will not ship nuclear technology to India without the proper safeguards," said Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Bush said helping India with nuclear power would reduce the global demand for energy which has sent gasoline prices soaring. It also could be a boon for American companies that have been barred from selling reactors and material to India.
Critics have complained the deal rewards bad behaviour and undermines efforts to prevent states like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. The White House said India was unique because it had protected its nuclear technology and not been a proliferator.
Meanwhile, Australia won't sell uranium to India until it signs the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even though New Delhi agreed recently with Washington to open its civilian nuclear plants to inspection, Australia's foreign minister said.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer welcomed the U.S. deal with India sealed Thursday during a visit to New Delhi by U.S. President George W. Bush, under which India agreed to open civilian nuclear facilities to international inspections for the first time.
But he said Australia would not alter its policy of blocking the sale of uranium to countries that fail to sign onto the NPT.
"If we were to export uranium to India that would constitute a significant shift in our policy, it would open up questions of whether we would export uranium to countries like Israel and Pakistan as well," Downer told Australia Broadcasting Corp. radio. "I think it is probably easier for us to support the current policy."
"It is probably better for us to give all the support we can to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and our view is one day we would like India to sign that treaty and we haven't withdrawn from that position," Downer added.
He defended continuing negotiations to sell uranium to China, saying Beijing had signed the international treaty.
On his first visit to India Bush secured a landmark nuclear energy agreement which will open most Indian reactors to international inspections and provide the nation with U.S. nuclear technology.
Under the accord, the United States will share its nuclear know-how and fuel with India to help power its fast-growing economy. It represents a major shift in policy for the United States, which imposed temporary sanctions on India in 1998 after it conducted nuclear tests. The agreement will require U.S. congressional approval, which Bush acknowledged would be difficult to win.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard is scheduled to travel to India with a trade delegation next week.
Although second to Canada in production, Australia boasts the world's biggest uranium reserves. The Olympic Dam mine in South Australia state holds 38 percent of the world's known uranium resources.
Uranium mining is a politically sensitive issue in Australia, where output and offshore sales have long been restricted.
Downer said last year that China could be importing 9,000 tons of uranium a year by 2020, giving it the potential to become Australia's largest customer. But Canberra wants assurances that the material would not be put to military use or re-exported to third countries.