Vice-President Hamid Ansari arrived here for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) even as Foreign Ministers wrapped up their preliminary discussions amid debate and disagreement on how to make the 54-nation grouping relevant in a changing world.
Informal, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is a key part of the CHOGM summits, and India seemed to be using the opportunity to lobby for a change in Australia's uranium exports policy banning sales to India, which is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The issue reportedly came up at Mr. Ansari's meeting with Australian Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott on Thursday. Mr. Abbott heads the centre-right Liberal Party of Australia, which favours allowing Australia — which has the world's largest reserves of uranium — to export the mineral to India.
“If the [Australian] government was serious about reducing global emissions, they would lift the ban on selling uranium to India,” he told Australian broadcaster ABC.
Mr. Ansari is also likely to discuss the issue at his bilateral meeting with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard later this week. The ruling Labour party is split on the issue, which is expected to be a subject of hot debate at the party conference this December. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd argued that India's civil nuclear power programme was not dependent on Australian uranium.
“If you hear an argument from an Indian businessperson that the future of the nuclear industry in India depends exclusively on access to uranium, that is simply not sustainable as a proposition. Have a look at the data,” he said at a mining industry breakfast, according to a report by Australian news agency AAP. Both Indian officials and businessmen have been raising the issue on the sidelines of the CHOGM. “There is no problem in terms of global supply, let's just be very, very blunt about this.”
However, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson who supports uranium exports to India, said he was eager to debate the issue at the party conference, which could turn out to be pivotal for India's hopes of accessing Australian uranium.
Mr. Ferguson also told Australian journalists that talks were on for a large Indian investment in the Galilee coal basin in Queensland.
Ahead of Friday's inauguration of the CHOGM by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, there is a strong push among some countries for adoption of a Commonwealth reform recommendation to set up a human rights monitor. The Vice-President is expected to reiterate India's viewpoint that such a move duplicates the work of the U.N. and is especially unnecessary in the light of the group's funding woes.
Sri Lanka's human rights record and alleged war crimes by government forces in its civil war against the LTTE has been the target of attention here. Some countries are lobbying to reconsider the island nation as the host of the next CHOGM summit — Canada has actually vowed to boycott the next meet if the Sri Lankan government does not shape up — but Mr. Ansari indicated that India would hold firm against such pressures.
“As far as we are concerned, the decision to have the next CHOGM in 2013 was taken at the [last] meeting in Port of Spain. That is a decision and that is the end of the matter,” he told journalists on board the special aircraft to Perth.
Food and energy security, the global economic situation and terrorism are likely to be other items on the CHOGM agenda, according to Mr. Ansari.