WITHIN a fortnight since Canberra took the landmark decision on yellowcake supply to New Delhi, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith paid a three-day visit to India. Smith, Foreign Minister under the Rudd government, and a long-time India supporter on the uranium issue, arrived in New Delhi earlier this month.
The Julia Gillard government’s most frequent flyer to India, Smith is the first minister to have visited India since the decision was taken. He has been to India thrice before and is considered one of the key role players in shaping Australia’s renewed policy stand regarding nuclear matters on India.
Earlier, citing domestic political and policy reasons, the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) had forced the Rudd government to reverse the John Howard-led Conservative government’s 2007 decision to supply uranium. However, after mulling over the decision for years and considering India’s case as sui- generic (unique), Prime Minister Gillard made a powerful case for India at the ALP conference in Sydney.
She pleaded that apart from India’s commendable record on nuclear non-proliferation, doing business with India was good for the Australian economy as also in improving relations with the emerging economic superpower. She further assured the party members that her government would put in place stringent safeguard measures to make sure that New Delhi uses the material for agreed projects.
Interestingly, Australia already has such an agreement with China, backed by powerful safeguard measures and inspection regimes. Canberra is likely to put in place a similar deal with New Delhi as well. India and Australia will start the negotiations on uranium supply in 2012.
That India’s case is considered as a ‘stand alone’ and exceptional is also evident from the fact that Australia turned down Pakistan’s demand for a similar deal. Steering clear of any further debate on Pakistan’s claims, Smith has said that there have been serious concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation record. Additionally, it has not voluntarily placed itself under the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency or the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The decision on uranium supply has helped remove a major stumbling block in India’s relationship with its antipodean neighbour. Though the two countries have consistently been denying it, the issue did prevent the relationship from graduating to a more mature level, to say the least.
Business calculations and the feeling that overlooking New Delhi’s energy concerns wouldn’t do any good to Canberra motivated it to take a decision in India’s favour. The country with biggest uranium reserves in the world doesn’t want to lag behind in benefiting from India’s rapidly growing nuclear energy market.
Smith’s visit adds substance to the diplomatic developments happening lately on the bilateral front. His itinerary included the Defence Ministers’ dialogue in New Delhi. First held in December 2010, the dialogue involved deliberations on matters strategic and security, including maritime and regional security. It was in consonance with the 2009 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. He also held meetings with the armed forces officials and other senior political leaders and visited the Western Naval Command and the Victoria Dockyard in Mumbai.
The visit was aimed at setting the middle to long-term agenda for bilateral ties, a kind of groundwork to broaden the horizon of relationship. This is evident from the fact that not only was there a talk of follow-up stages in nuclear cooperation but also setting up of broad-based naval cooperation and exchanges. The two sides also agreed to convene a track 1.5 strategic dialogue in Australia in 2012.
Smith conveyed to his Indian counterpart that Canberra was keen on conducting joint naval exercises with New Delhi, even offering to join in the Malabar exercise again from which it had opted out in 2009 to keep China in good humour.
Both India and Australia realise it very well that the Indian Ocean offers them umpteen opportunities to cooperate on the maritime front. Realising the growing strategic significance of the Indian Ocean region, Australia has started attaching importance to its western neighbours in general and India in particular.
However, a concrete roadmap for long-term naval cooperation is very much needed in this respect. Perhaps, the Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) could offer a lot in that regard. The IONS is an India initiated group of which Australia is an active member. Australia is hosting the IONS Conclave of Chiefs in Perth in 2014. Attempts at revitalising the IOR-ARC and working on the IONS clearly demonstrate India and Australia’s willingness to understand each other better and cooperate on maritime matters in making the region prosperous and peaceful.
The relationship is moving on to a higher level is apparent from the fact that India was one of the few countries briefed on a 2,500 US mariner strong joint US-Australia base in Darwin. Signed on November 16, 2011, the agreement is widely seen as a response to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Rumours also floated in the media about the possibility of an Australia-US-India alliance, which was wrongly attributed to Kevin Rudd. In order to clear the haze, a media statement from the Australian High Commission in New Delhi was issued on December 2, 2011.
In fact, the study regarding the possibility of such an alliance was conducted jointly by an Indian and Australian think tank, which published its report in late 2011. To be sure, at the official level Australia has not expressed any interested in a military alliance with India. In the past, India had refused to get into any kind of military alliance with any country, a manifestation of India’s long-standing foreign policy position. In any case, considering the rapidly changing economic and strategic dynamics of the region, it is too early to predict how the emerging alliances in the region will unfold and what they mean for India’s national security interests.
All in all, the recent developments on this set of relationship demonstrate that Australia is keen to invest in India’s rise in all possible aspects, including energy, educational, economic and strategic, to ensure that it is not caught napping when the whole world is jockeying to harness benefits from India’s rise, if it can ever rid itself from utter corruption.....LOL