Australia has given indications of reversing the ban on selling uranium to India in return for greater strategic proximity between the two countries. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, after pushing for India's case in a newspaper article and at a press conference on Tuesday, will have to persuade the Labour Party to endorse her stand at its conference next month.
India welcomed the move with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna terming it an endorsement of the country's “impeccable non-proliferation credentials.'' But it remains to be seen whether Australia will insist on a regime of inspections similar to its pact with China. Also, the Green Party, which backs the Labour Government, is opposed to Australia supplying uranium to a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Home to 40 per cent of economically extractable uranium and globally the third largest exporter, Australia had agreed to supply uranium but the decision was overturned after the Labour Party defeated the incumbent Conservatives in 2007.
This took a toll on the bilateral relations and India was prepared to send an envoy to the Labour Party's conference to explain its energy needs and stand on proliferation.
Ms. Gillard set the ball rolling the first thing in the morning with her op-ed article in the Sydney Morning Herald. “We must, of course, expect of India the same standards we do of all countries for uranium export — strict adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency arrangements and strong bilateral and transparency measures which will provide assurances our uranium will be used only for peaceful purposes,” she wrote.
The Prime Minster followed this up at a news conference in Canberra later in the day. The first issue she mentioned was the question of uranium and India. “The Labour Party's current platform prevents us selling uranium to India, because it is not part of the NPT. I believe the time has come for the Labour Party to change this position.”
Besides contributing to the Australian economy, Ms. Gillard said, the sale was justified because of a “change in diplomatic circumstances around the world,” meaning the Nuclear Supplier's Group allowing India to join the global civil nuclear commerce mainstream. “For us to refuse to budge is all pain with no gain and I believe that our national platform should recognise that reality. So this is a significant issue for Australia that will be the subject of discussion and debate at our National Conference, but I am making my position on this issue very clear,” she explained.
What Ms. Gillard left unsaid has been detailed in an Australian government's approach paper on the defence architecture, which suggested the beginning of a U.S.-Australia-India trilateral dialogue. This theme has been picked up by think tanks, who feel after some time the trio could get into joint naval operations and theatre missile defence.
With U.S. quarterbacking the effort, India had agreed for a trilateral dialogue with Japan as the third partner. Both Japan and Australia are among the half-a-dozen Asia-Pacific states that have long-standing military and intelligence sharing pacts with the U.S.
These countries had tested the waters earlier by holding a meeting of the “quadrilateral” – the U.S., India, Australia and Japan, with Singapore as a junior partner – in Manila and following it up with the biggest-ever naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in 2007. But there was no second edition after the initiative earned demarches from China and opprobrium from the opposition parties.
India had reasons to be upset when then Special Envoy to Prime Minister Shyam Saran was told that the Labour Government had decided to upturn the decision to sell uranium to India. “It is true that the previous government had said it would supply uranium to India. This government had a policy before the elections. It was restated [to Mr. Saran] very clearly. But it doesn't mean we like India any less than the previous government... India is very important but uranium is a problem for us,” then Australian High Commissioner John McCarthy had told The Hindu.
India has refused to sign the NPT because it believes the treaty is discriminatory by allowing a handful of countries to retain nuclear weapons.