Foreign Ministers rule out reviving a trilateral or quadrilateral approach to maritime security

With Australia and India realising that they cannot have a full-fledged strategic partnership without enhanced cooperation in critical sectors, both sides have decided to hold the first-ever talks on a civil nuclear partnership agreement here on March 19.

Around the same time, A.K. Antony will visit Australia, the first by an Indian Defence Minister, but the Foreign Ministers have ruled out the idea of reviving a trilateral or quadrilateral approach to maritime security.

“There is a large geo-political aim behind this. There is strong support within Australia for better relations with India,” said officials while explaining that the current Australian government’s earlier decision not to conduct nuclear-related trade with India had led to a chill in bilateral ties.

While India has expressed its readiness to negotiate a civil nuclear agreement, it has made clear its unwillingness to go beyond the formats of previous pacts signed with countries such as the U.S., Russia and France.

“There is a backdrop available and there are models available,” said External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in this respect at a joint press conference after talks with his Australian counterpart Bob Carr here on Monday.

The intention is to avoid the log jam so far in civil nuclear talks with Japan which has asked India to incorporate commitments in the proposed agreement that are not there in its pacts with other countries.

The immediate focus is on sourcing uranium from the world’s largest producer, but officials said the cooperation agreement will have a broad scope, covering all areas of civil nuclear cooperation including issues relating to global non-proliferation.

Wide-ranging talks that also include disarmament and non-proliferation, it is hoped, will lead to the positive consideration of India’s membership of the Australia Group, one of the four major export control bodies for dual use items. Despite its best efforts, India has been unable to join the Australia Group as well as the other three — the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, the Wasenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Both Foreign Ministers were emphatic in ruling out the revival of the quadrilateral security grouping that made its first appearance in 2007 with an interaction in Manila and a massive exercise in the Bay of Bengal involving the armed forces of four countries.

Mr. Carr also said it was hypothetical to consider even a trilateral grouping involving India, Japan and Australia. Both efforts had earned demarches from China which wanted to know the purpose behind such an alliance. This led to the idea being buried.

“When it comes to the trilateral involving Japan, India and Australia, it remains hypothetical. We would welcome separate discussions with Japan. But there is no formal proposal for a trilateral on issues we discussed. The quadrilateral, it is probably fair to say, is even more ambitious than that. Again, it is clearly hypothetical,” said the Australian Foreign Minister in response to a question.

Mr. Khurshid explained the implications of such a move: “Every time you move beyond bilateral to something that is trilateral, quadrilateral or multilateral, you look at many implications, and you look at the content and the context, and then you take a decision as you move.”

Both sides agreed on an expanded bilateral dialogue on cyber policy and discussed maritime security in the Indian Ocean.