When they meet in New Delhi on Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott should, hopefully, clinch the long-awaited agreement on civil nuclear cooperation that would allow Canberra to export uranium to India. But the two leaders should also look beyond the nuclear issue and lay the foundation for an enduring defence and security cooperation that will contribute to peace and stability in Asia and the Indo-Pacific littoral.
The nuclear deal is indeed an important breakthrough in bilateral relations. It is, in essence, about burying the past when differences over non-proliferation issues constrained the engagement between the two countries. These differences boiled over when Australia reacted sharply to the Indian nuclear tests in May 1998. Canberra found it hard to export uranium even after Delhi concluded a historic civil nuclear initiative with Washington that ended more than three decades of India’s atomic isolation. There were deep divisions within the Australian political class on allowing uranium exports to India.
As part of its strong and unilateral non-proliferation commitments, Australia had decided long years ago that it would not export uranium to countries that did not sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The problem for Australia was that the India-US nuclear initiative was about finding a way to circumvent the question of the NPT. While India was not in a position to sign the NPT, it offered strong assurances to the international community that it would not use material and technology obtained through international cooperation for military purposes. India also reaffirmed its impeccable non-proliferation record and expressed full support for the global non-proliferation regime. The challenge in Australia was to get the political elite to look beyond the NPT, understand the value of India’s integration into the global nuclear order and, above all, appreciate the broader benefits of building a lasting partnership with Delhi.
To their credit, Prime Minister Abbott and his predecessors in both Liberal and Labor parties have worked hard to overcome internal political differences and get the country to change its long-standing policy on uranium exports by taking a strategic view of relations with India. Once the deal is through, Australia could become an important source of natural uranium exports.
The real story, however, lies beyond uranium. Australia is rich in mineral resources and is a natural long-term partner for India’s industrial growth. Whichever way Delhi’s strategy for energy security might evolve in the coming years, Australia, with its abundant coal and natural gas resources, will loom large in India’s calculus. With one of the world’s strongest mining sectors, Australia can help India exploit its own natural resources in an environmentally sustainable way and thereby address one of the major current constraints on India’s economic growth.
Contrary to the perception that the country is all about mining, continued…