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India-Australia nuclear deal: a pivot point

One of the high points of the visit of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to Delhi on September 4 and 5 was the signing of a deal for the supply of Australian uranium to India. This marked a turning point in the India-Australia bilateral relationship. It eliminated one of the biggest political irritants between the two countries and could usher in a new era of strategic partnership.

India and Australia have both long been champions of a world without nuclear weapons, but they come from somewhat different perspectives. Despite having the world’s largest reserves of high grade uranium, nuclear power and nuclear weapons have long been taboo in Australia. Australia has no nuclear power industry and it would indeed be political suicide for any government to try to develop one.

Although Australia has developed its uranium export industry in recent years, there are still considerable reservations among many in Australia about its sale. The key condition for allowing uranium mining was that uranium would only be exported for civilian use to countries that had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – that is, Australian uranium would have no part in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

India has also long sought a world free of nuclear weapons. But at the same time it has had to deal with the reality of two nuclear-armed neighbours with which it has difficult relations. This has led it to reject the NPT and other international treaties that sought to limit the possession of nuclear weapons to the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council. India also has a huge deficit in the production of electricity, which it believes can be overcome through the development of a large civilian nuclear power industry.

Over the years, these different perspectives have led to several clashes on nuclear issues. Most famously, in 1998, Australia’s conservative government under Prime Minister John Howard responded harshly to India’s Pokhran II nuclear weapons tests, motivated by concerns about the stability of South Asia, convictions about the sanctity of non-proliferation norms and to a certain extent, by domestic political considerations.

Australia and Japan then placed themselves at the forefront of international opposition to India’s actions. New Delhi took particular offence at Australia’s stance on the tests, arguing that it was hypocritical to condemn India’s need to provide for its own security while Australia was sheltered under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Although this episode occurred more than a quarter century ago, Australia’s stance has been used by some in New Delhi as a reason to slow down development of the strategic relationship.

For the last decade or so, Australia has been keen to help bring India into the nuclear mainstream. In 2008, Australia strongly supported the U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear deal by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (the international club of countries that trade in nuclear technology and fuel). This effectively gave the green light for other countries to supply uranium and nuclear technology to India.

Despite this agreement, Australia continued its policy of not supplying uranium to countries, including India, that had not signed the NPT. Some in New Delhi held this up as showing a lack of commitment to the relationship and a refusal to acknowledge India’s great power status.

But Australia’s policy changed in 2011 following an impassioned debate within the Australia Labor Party, and it was agreed to make a special exception for India. This allowed for an agreement with India that includes safeguards on the use of uranium, as with Australia’s other export partners.

The signing of a supply agreement during Tony Abbotts’ visit to New Delhi will, in practical terms, allow both sides to finally put a cap on the nuclear issue. Australia is now lobbying the Nuclear Suppliers Group for India to join as the only member that has not signed the NPT. Whether China’s objections to India’s membership can be overcome remains to be seen. Other NSG members also have ‘slippery slope’ concerns about dealing with non-NPT countries (other than India) that may not necessarily be responsible nuclear citizens.

The next big step for India will be in finalising a nuclear deal with Japan, which has been stalled for many years. As we have seen in recent days, there are increasingly warm relations between Delhi and Tokyo and much talk of strategic partnership and closer defence relations.

But despite the rhetoric, a nuclear deal may still be a long way off. The Japanese nuclear industry is keen to have India as a customer, but India’s refusal to sign the NPT or the international nuclear test ban treaty remains a big problem for Japanese of all political colours. Mr. Modi will need to find a way to satisfy their concerns that a special deal for India will not fatally undermine international nuclear norms.

For India and Australia the symbolism of finally moving past the nuclear issue is very important. Indeed, it represents Australia’s recognition of India’s growing status as a major power and may give leaders and bureaucrats in Delhi and Canberra space to give substance to a much closer defence and security partnership.

Many hope that this can grow into a three-way security relationship with Japan. An informal coalition between these three regional powers — and potentially others — could help provide much needed stability for a region that is becoming increasingly anxious about an assertive China and a distracted United States.

David Brewster is Senior Visiting Fellow, Maritime Studies at Gateway House.

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