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The Australia-India Strategic Lecture

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26 March 2008 13:40

The thorny issues in Australia’s relations with India — uranium sales and how to deal with China — received some thoughtful treatment in the second Australia-India Strategic Lecture, hosted yesterday by the Lowy Institute and the Australia-India Council.

Although the lecture, presented by former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, dealt primarily with the promise and limitations of the US-India strategic partnership, it touched on the connected issues of India’s role in Asia and its relations with Australia. A podcast of the lecture will be posted on the Lowy Institute website shortly, with a published text to follow, but in the meantime it is worth highlighting a few of Ambassador Mansingh’s more telling messages. On the now-dead-or-dormant quadrilateral dialogue among the US, Japan, India and Australia, he said:

India and Japan see each other as global partners with shared security concerns in the region…It is in this context that the idea surfaced of a Quadrilateral Cooperation, or 'the Quad', between India, Japan, the USA and Australia. There was a successful display of this cooperation during the joint naval exercise held in the Bay of Bengal during September 2007. The fears expressed in some quarters, especially in China, that this was the beginning of a new security alliance, the so-called Asian NATO, are completely unfounded. The Quad, as an instrument of naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean, is an eminently sensible idea. As a move to contain China, however, it would be both foolish and unrealistic. I am convinced that all the four partners share the same approach to the issue.

On the question of Australian uranium sales to India, and the decision by the Rudd Government to reverse the Howard Government’s in-principle support for such exports, he had this to say:

India is somewhat puzzled by the mixed signals sent out by the new Australian Government. Canberra has welcomed the Indo-US nuclear deal and has hinted that it will support a waiver being issued by the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), which will enable India to engage in nuclear commerce with the rest of the world. And yet, in a reversal of an earlier initiative by the Howard Government, the new administration has clarified that it will not sell uranium to India unless India signs the NPT. 

The Indo-US nuclear deal is based on three important premises. One, that the NPT should cease to be the pretext for punishing India since the violators of the treaty have been those who signed it, unlike India, which observed the obligations of the NPT even from the outside. Two, that the global non-proliferation regime will be vastly strengthened by bringing India inside the tent rather than treating it like a nuclear untouchable. And finally, that nuclear power is the most promising source for India’s massive energy requirements in the future. Diverting India (and China) towards nuclear power will help reduce global pollution and maintain a measure of stability in oil and gas prices.

The validity of these arguments has now been accepted by the IAEA and by the major powers including the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. If Australia remains firm on not exporting uranium to India, it will appear to be out of step with the approach of the other leading nations of the world.  Supporting India’s right to buy nuclear fuel from other sources through an NSG waiver also contradicts the logic of not permitting uranium sales from Australia. Finally, Australia will be hard pressed to provide the moral justification for selling uranium to China, which has been a major proliferator of nuclear technology (eg. to Pakistan, North Korea, Libya and Iran) while denying access to India, which has an exemplary record on non-proliferation. 

I trust that the uranium issue will be given a deeper and more serious consideration as the new Government settles in. Having said that, I feel it would be a grave mistake for the two countries to be fixated on this single issue. India and Australia have a broader range of common concerns in the region and globally. They share a strategic interest in maintaining stability in the Indian Ocean, which is vital for the overseas trade of both countries. India looks to Australia as a long-term associate in its economic growth and a principal partner for its energy security. The prospects of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) are being discussed, and there has been an impressive growth in trade and in services. A solid foundation has been laid for collaboration in Science and Technology and Australia is now the second most popular destination for Indian students aboard. A new world of cooperation is opening up for India and Australia.

Although Ambassador Mansingh’s lecture ranged widely, and for an Australian audience was a useful illumination of the sometimes mysterious logic of Indian foreign policy, the subsequent question-and-answer session did indeed fixate on a single issue: how Australia should or should not engage with India’s nuclear-powered future. The Rudd policy is clear for now, and both governments have sensibly decided to be patient with one another. But it is equally apparent that the issue is far from settled.

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