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Australia-India: The signs are good

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COMMENTS

24 June 2008 15:49

Australia-India relations have received a needed political boost this week, with the visit to Canberra by Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, primarily for a ‘framework dialogue’ with his counterpart Stephen Smith. Foreign ministries inevitably declare such visits to be successful; but all the signs are that this one really has struck the right note.

In earlier posts and publications I’ve argued that Australia-India ties are a case of hesitating on the brink of genuine partnership. But it seems that the Rudd Government is becoming serious about seeking ways to build on the Howard Government’s achievements and take the relationship to a new level. Stephen Smith has consistently talked the talk on the economic and strategic importance of India to Australia’s future; now he is beginning to walk the walk convincingly as well.

Importantly, Smith successfully avoided allowing the uranium issue to dominate the visit. The Indian Government knows that Australian policy on uranium exports is bound by the Labor platform, which, through a deal struck at the party’s national conference last year, reiterated that prospective customers had to be members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is a condition India simply cannot meet in current or even likely circumstances.

I still believe that, in the long run, it would be in the interests of both countries to have a civilian uranium supply relationship, under suitable safeguards and in the context of demonstrable commitments by India on disarmament and non-proliferation. But there is no point in either country harping on the issue right now. After all, it remains a hypothetical, given that the India-US nuclear deal that would open the doors for other countries to do such trade with New Delhi remains blocked by Indian domestic differences.

The elevation of the defence relationship, including the establishment of regular chief of defence force talks; the announcement of an extradition treaty; the resolve to work together in regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit; the growing focus on energy co-operation; the recognition of the growing role of the Indian diaspora in Australia: these were all positive elements of the visit.

Another worthwhile announcement, which admittedly the Lowy Institute has a vested interest* in lauding, was the establishment of an Australia-India Roundtable of scholars and experts. This forum will discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the two countries, with a view to generating new ideas for the two governments to improve practical co-operation and mutual understanding.

The visit, and the ‘beyond uranium’ tenor of the discussions, has played well in the Indian press. Smith rightly acknowledged that India and Australia have common interests in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and intimated that India might become involved in the Rudd Government’s new international commission on nuclear disarmament. This would be a sensible move – one of the weaknesses of the Canberra Commission was that it did not include an Indian.

Indeed, given that India hosted its own nuclear disarmament conference on 9 June (the day Rudd announced his commission, and the 20th anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s visionary plan to abolish nuclear weapons), and that one of the possible outcomes of that conference might be a project broadly similar to Rudd’s commission, the two countries should even consider working together to produce the best possible expert report their combined resources and talents can support. If Australia and India can transcend their historical differences to find common ground on nuclear arms control, there will be hope for the wider non-proliferation and disarmament regime yet.

* Disclosure: The author participated in the recent Indian conference on nuclear disarmament, and is closely involved in the establishment of the new Australia-India Roundtable, which will be convened by the Lowy Institute for International Policy and the Indian Council for World Affairs.

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