In a November 15 op-ed in The Age, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that she would push her Labor Party to overturn its ban on selling uranium to India when the party meets next month.
The unexpected announcement is a testament to the growing importance that Australia attaches to ties with India and should lead to a significant deepening of their bilateral partnership.
In 2008, Australia’s Labor Party government reversed a decision by its predecessor to end the ban on export of uranium to India on the grounds that India had not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The issue has become an increasingly sore spot in their relationship, especially given that India received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group that opened it to the broader international civilian nuclear market that same year. It has also been duly noted in New Delhi that, in contrast to its treatment, Australia has continued to sell uranium to China, in some sense a geopolitical rival of India but also one with a suspect nonproliferation record.
There was even speculation in the Australian media that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh avoided attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Canberra earlier this month because of the uranium controversy (although the fact that an Indian prime minister has not visited Australia in 25 years is an indication that uranium may not have been the only factor involved in Singh’s absence).
In a bold reversal of her position, Gillard declared on Tuesday, “It is time for Labor to modernize our platform and enable us to strengthen our connection with dynamic, democratic India.” Although sure to face some opposition, the initiative is expected to garner enough support to pass when the party caucuses next month.
Australia’s opening to India is already being warmly welcomed in Washington, which is pursuing deeper security ties with both countries. Given that Gillard’s announcement coincided with President Obama’s visit to Australia, Obama found it necessary to quell speculation that Washington had pressured Canberra to make the policy change. During a press conference in Canberra on Wednesday, Obama said he suspected that some “pretty smart [Australian] government officials” could figure out on their own that India is a “big player and that the Australia-India relationship is one that should be cultivated.”
The Heritage Foundation, in partnership with scholars at the Lowy Institute (an Australian think tank) and the Indian Observer Research Foundation, released “Shared Goals, Converging Interests: A Plan for U.S.–Australia–India Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” which lays out concrete suggestions for enhancing dialogue and cooperation among the three democratic powers in areas like maritime security, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism, with an eye to encouraging a more stable and predictable order in the Asia-Pacific region.
The report was launched in Sydney on November 4 and in New Delhi on November 7. During the launch event in New Delhi, Heritage Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies Dr. Kim Holmes told the audience, “We believe a more visible trilateral strategy should link the strengths and resources of the United States with those of Australia and India” and that a critical piece of achieving stability and security in the Indo-Pacific is a “robust, principled U.S.–India–Australia trilateral relationship.”
It just so happens that one of the main topics during the roundtable discussions and in Heritage Foundation meetings with Australian and Indian officials was the uranium issue and how it was a major stumbling block not only to furthering Indo–Australian bilateral relations but also to moving forward with the concept of trilateral cooperation with the U.S. Now that Canberra is ready to remove this major irritant, it is time for all three countries to seriously consider the merits of greater cooperation, including a formal trilateral dialogue. In the process—and in the cause of further confidence building—perhaps India could return Australia’s uranium gesture by sending Singh on a long-delayed visit to Australia.