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Obama, India and the Australia Group

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COMMENTS

11 November 2010 11:30

Obama's visit to India this week achieved more than most pundits had anticipated in bolstering US–India strategic links.  One reason was his willingness to signal that the United States would support India's membership of so–called non-proliferation export control regimes —  groups of nations which harmonise laws and share information to prevent their civilian industries from deliberately or inadvertently aiding weapons of mass destruction programs.

The most important of these from India's point of view is the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). But Washington's persuading other states of the need for Indian admission to the NSG will not be easy. On the heels of the controversial US–India civil nuclear deal, which Washington pushed less than gently through the NSG, a move to bring India literally into the club will be seen in some quarters as a fresh challenge to the traditional non–proliferation order centred around the Nuclear Non–Proliferation Treaty — of which India is not, and in effect cannot become, a member.

Less contentious is Obama's proposal to bring India into the arrangement of nations which collaborates to prevent the abuse of dual–use technology and materials for chemical and biological weapons programs. This is called the Australia Group, because Australia is the permanent chair and was instrumental the body's formation in the 1980s after revelations about European companies abetting Saddam Hussein's (then very real and murderous) chemical arsenal.

All things considered, it is absurd and unsustainable that a rising India, set to rank with China and the United States as one of the 21st century's big three powers, would be excluded from this valuable institution, especially given the scale and growth of India's chemical and biotech industries.

The idea of bringing India into the Australia Group was recently mooted in this report by an all–star panel of US security thinkers and practitioners. But its first public airing was by the Lowy Institute. And it was a central recommendation of a policy brief I published last year with an Indian colleague.

An Australian initiative in championing such a move would have been a relatively easy step towards building a degree of partnership with India on non-proliferation issues, an area where Australia–India relations have too often been prickly. Canberra could have led here.

In any case, there is now an opportunity for Australia, as permanent chair, to do some critical follow–through in support of Obama's policy shift: to promote the case for Indian membership to other participants in the Australia Group, and to offer India technical and legal advice on any final touches it may need to its national export control laws and their implementation so that it is ready to join. 

India's policy establishment, for its part, will need to put aside any remaining hesitation about joining export control regimes, which it used to claim were a Western–led plot to restrict the modernisation of developing countries. I suspect, however, that any such unfounded misgivings are already in the past.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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