Harsh V Pant: Canberra makes all the right moves

Last Updated: Sat, Oct 20, 2012 18:44 hrs

During her three-day state visit to India earlier this week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made all the right moves. An Order of Australia, an award rarely bestowed on foreigners, was conferred on Sachin Tendulkar. Gillard elevated ties with India to the highest priority for Australia and in the same league as those with the US, China and Indonesia. Underlining that “Australia’s future in Asia is finally grounded in relationships of respect with Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, Jakarta, Seoul and Delhi,” Ms Gillard declared that Australia recognises “India’s importance in the Asian century” and Australia’s goal is a partnership with India “as one of the handful of countries which matter most to Australia.” At the same time, she candidly acknowledged that “the strong relationship between our peoples has not been matched by the strength of the connection between our governments.”

The highlight of the visit was the decision by the two nations to pave the way for a uranium safeguards agreement that will finally allow Australia to export uranium to India. The safeguards pact is viewed as critical by those who have opposed the changing Australian policy of nuclear trade with a country like India that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). By underlying strict requirements on the safe use of nuclear fuel and specifying regulations in consonance with the global nuclear regime, Canberra is keen to signal its continued adherence to international nuclear standards even as it reaches out to New Delhi to give a boost to its mining industry. Though the safeguards pact will take a few years to finalise, the change of policy by Canberra is a remarkable development and needs to be recognised as such. That an Australian Labour government, traditionally considered a non-proliferation hawk, should take this decision is reflective of the changing priorities of Canberra.

Australia has the world’s largest deposits of uranium, and major Australian mining companies are looking to expand production as the global demand for nuclear power grows over the next decade. India’s civilian nuclear industry is expanding, as the number of operating plants is expected to increase from 20 to more than 60 over the next decade. Ms Gillard was successful in persuading her Labour Party last year to overturn the party policy of opposing uranium sales to a nation that was not a signatory to the NPT, despite significant opposition. The Labour government’s decision to reverse the Australian policy of allowing the sale of uranium to India as enunciated by its predecessor had been a big blow to Australia-India ties. It was Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, who had imposed the ban, on the grounds that India was not a signatory to the NPT.

Washington had to pull out all the stops in convincing the Julia Gillard government that, given the strategic importance of India, Canberra needed to change its policy on uranium sales. And Ms Gillard could point to the US-India civil nuclear pact that has brought India into the global nuclear mainstream.

Australia has the world’s largest deposits of uranium, so it always made economic sense for it to sell more to an energy-hungry India. Moreover, it is difficult for Canberra to justify a ban on uranium exports to India, a fellow democracy and a country with impeccable nonproliferation credentials, while continuing to send uranium to China, which has been the most important factor in the weakening of the nonproliferation regime in view of its relationship with Pakistan. Australia has 22 bilateral nuclear cooperation pacts with countries, including the US, China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Even as other nuclear-supplier nations have been lining up to sign civil nuclear pacts with India, Australia found itself marginalised. After the Nuclear Suppliers Group, of which Australia is a member, decided to carve out an exception for nuclear materials exports to India in 2008 by granting it a special waiver, there was no logical reason for Australia to continue with its policy of a ban on uranium sales to India.

Moreover, the geostrategic environment in the Indo-Pacific has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years, with the rapid rise of China. Washington has been working to transform the US-Australian partnership from “an Asia-Pacific alliance to an Indo-Pacific alliance.” Australia’s ties with China have also been difficult in recent years and building bridges with India underlines the evolving strategic reality in the region. The two states have a shared interest in managing the Indo-Pacific commons, including the very important sea lanes of communication. Closer maritime cooperation between New Delhi and Canberra is crucial in managing the growing turbulence in the Indian Ocean region.

Bilateral trade between Australia and India has increased from $3.3 billion in 2000 to $20 billion last year, and is projected to reach $40 billion by 2016 as negotiations on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement continue. India is now the fourth largest market for Australian exports. As the Indian economy grows, Australia will continue to be a major supplier of minerals and fuel. Despite recent tensions regarding attacks on students of Indian origin, Australia has continued to grow in importance as a destination for higher studies. The Indian community is Australia’s fastest-growing immigrant community.

It was in 2009 that the two sides decided to elevate their ties to a “strategic partnership.” But as is true of all such ‘strategic’ partnerships, nothing substantive has come out of it. Indian bureaucracy has mastered the art of scuttling momentum in any relationship, and India-Australia is no exception.

With Ms Gillard’s visit, Australia has underscored its commitment to its ties with India and signalled its seriousness about a robust partnership. It is time now for New Delhi to reciprocate. The last trip to Australia by an Indian Prime Minister was in 1986, 26 years ago. Earlier this year there were indications that Manmohan Singh would be visiting Australia, but that came to nothing. There is more to the India-Australia relationship than “cricket, Commonwealth and a common language.” And New Delhi should not be shy of taking advantage of this growing convergence.

The writer teaches at King’s College, London and is presently a visiting fellow at the Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne

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