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Don’t call it blackmail

There is no reason why India and Australia cannot be on the same nuclear page

Written by Rorymedcalf |
September 10, 2008 12:40:15 am

The calendar has conspired against Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. He is in India this week amid renewed calls for his government to sell uranium now that the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group has approved the US-India deal. If Smith had wanted to focus solely on the good news in Australia-India relations, his timing could hardly have been worse. But his trip was planned months before anyone would have dared guess the date or the outcome of the nuclear deal endgame.

Still, Australia-India diplomacy has weathered awkward coincidences before. Prime Minister John Howard landed in New Delhi in March 2006, right after George W. Bush had been in town to advance the nuclear accord. So Howard, whose government then had a policy of exporting uranium only to Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory states, was greeted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a smiling request for uranium sales.

Within 16 months, the conservative Howard government had radically changed policy, announcing an intent to sell yellowcake to India subject to safeguards and the NSG’s approval.

That was then. Howard promptly lost an election. Today’s Labour government in Canberra, under Kevin Rudd, has restored the NPT-members-only policy on uranium sales. Yet it also has a strong commitment to ties with India.

And Stephen Smith is from minerals-rich Western Australia, so both resource economics and geographic proximity make India a natural partner in his worldview.

Some fair winds are helping his bilateral endeavour. After initial bumps — notably Australia’s distancing itself from the quadrilateral dialogue with the United States, Japan and India — the relationship is shaping up well. Australian exports to India, notably in gold, copper, coal and education services, are booming with growth of 30 per cent a year.

India is Australia’s fastest-growing export destination and source of migrants. A thickening web of interaction has reinforced the respect each society has for the other’s democratic (not to mention cricketing) qualities, despite the odd controversy. Indian students and skilled workers are welcome additions to Australia’s economic and social fabric. Not that the deal is one-sided: as an education destination for Indians seeking opportunity, Australia is second only to the United States.

The agenda of common interests is long. On the strategic plane, these include: ensuring continued US engagement in an Asian system which can accommodate a rising but not destabilisingly dominant China; protecting sealanes for trade and energy security; improving and coordinating responses to natural disasters and climate change; and countering terrorism and jihadist ideology in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. Engagement looks set to deepen across these fronts, including in candid dialogue among defence and security agencies. Australia has troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan. Their foes are India’s too. At sea, operationally-focused talks and exercises take place between navies that see each other as partners of choice.

So the future is bright — except for the nuclear issue. Yet Indian observers should reflect on how far Australia has come. A decade ago, Canberra saw India as part of the global nuclear proliferation problem. Australia’s support for India’s waiver at the NSG shows that Canberra’s foreign and security policy establishment now sees India as part of the proliferation solution.

Indian observers are perplexed at the contradiction between Australia’s backing for the US-India deal and its refusal to countenance uranium exports under that deal. But Indians should be used to political compromise. Australia’s position on nuclear ties with India is more about balance than consistency.

Most Australians are genuinely concerned about nuclear dangers. They worry about nuclear proliferation, to states and to terrorists; they fear the potential for nuclear weapons to be brandished or used in a conflict. And they are troubled by the risk of nuclear accidents, military or civilian. Their sentiment is hardly just aimed at India. France’s nuclear testing in 1995 drew a far more visceral public reaction than India’s in 1998.

Australia, like India, is a democracy, and Australian governments are deeply mindful of opinion within political parties and the population.

John Howard’s decision to allow uranium sales to India was premature because it lacked bipartisan support. The Labour party opposed such sales partly as a result of its own internal nuclear deal. Under this, the party’s right wing secured consent from the left to allow uranium mining to expand. In return, a show of resolve was offered on non-proliferation, including reiterating a ban on uranium sales to non-NPT countries. India fell foul of this.

Through its NSG stance, the Rudd government has done what it can to help India within the spirit of its own non-proliferation views and the strict letter of Labour party policy.

In the long run, an Australian uranium supply relationship with India is likely. But Rudd won’t risk domestic contention on this. Australia will watch to see if the US-India deal is politically durable in India and whether a hyper-democratic India, with its restive coalitions, can be a reliable partner.

India could help itself by helping its friends in Australia to convince the Labour left and other doubters that New Delhi really can be a leader in disarmament — that it is serious, for instance, about fulfilling the undertakings in Pranab Mukherjee’s statement on September 5.

Australia and India could explore a creative partnership on nuclear security. This could involve a combined push for a verifiable global treaty to stop making fissile material for weapons, practical collaboration on export controls, and advocacy of a restrained and diminishing role for nuclear arms in Asia and globally. Credible Indian participation in the nuclear disarmament commission set up by Australia and Japan would be another step.

This is not about diplomatic blackmail. There is no direct link between Australia-India cooperation on arms control and possible future uranium sales. The challenge, rather, is to finish changing the context so that Australia and India can fully recognise each other as partners in nuclear security.

And anyway, since both Canberra and New Delhi worry about nuclear dangers, working together to reduce them can only be in both countries’ interest.

The writer directs the international security program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He has served as an Australian diplomat in India and on arms control

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