The thaw in Australia

The Australian Prime Minister, Mr. John Howard's visit to India this week marks the end of the freeze that set in the bilateral relations in the wake of Pokhran II. Australia was one of the countries which carried their sharp, indignant reaction to the Indian tests to the extreme. It recalled its High Commissioner from New Delhi for a brief while and reduced bilateral contacts. That phase is over now.

Australia now sees the futility of continuing its sulk and of letting the multi-dimensional bilateral dealings to be held hostage to a single issue. It did not take long to realise that, but India took longer to get over the feeling of hurt. The developments in Fiji - and the commonalities in their concerns - served as a catalyst to this process.

A beginning in the resumption of contacts was made in February 1999, with the trip here by the Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister here. This year, there was a series of visits - by the Foreign Minister, the Leader of Opposition and the shadow Foreign Minister. Simultaneously, foreign office-level consultations, suspended after the tests, were resumed.

Mr. Howard's talks with his counterpart, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, and other leaders focussed on areas of cooperation and convergence and, as a result of a conscious decision, the main subject of disagreement, the aftermath of the nuclear tests, was skirted. Not fully though. It did figure briefly, with the Australian side wanting to know the latest on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and related matters and the hosts re-stating their known stand - that efforts were on for a national consensus.

Mr. Howard inquired of the progress in the move towards consensus not only from the Government leaders, but also from the Congress(I) president, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, whom he called on. But while it is clear that the Congress(I) accepted the nuclear reality, the party appears to have remained non- committal on the consensus issues - mainly because it felt it had not been fully taken into confidence by the Government and, citing one case, said it was not completely posted with what had transpired between the External Affairs Minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, and the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Mr. Strobe Talbott.

It is reasonable to assume that Australia, like the major Western powers, favours, apart from New Delhi's adherence to the CTBT, foolproof steps to control export of sensitive items and to end the production of fissile material. But this was not the main thrust of the talks.

Fiji was discussed at some length. India had been wanting Australia to take the lead in imposing trade sanctions on the tiny island state because of its criminal actions against the democratic set-up. India and Australia had equally strong reasons to be concerned - New Delhi because persons of Indian origin were sought to be denied their democratic rights and Australia because any turmoil in its vicinity could only harm it, apart from other ways, through an influx of refugees.

However, both the countries saw the merit of a cautious approach because of the immediate objective of securing the release of the hostages, including the Prime Minister, Mr. Mahendra Pal Chowdhury, from the captivity of a gang of criminals. Australia, at the initial stage of the crisis, went slow on sanctions because of past experience. Last time when the democratic Government was forced out of office, Australia was quick to impose sanctions, only to find that the gap, thus created, was filled by Japan, China and Malaysia.

Mr. Howard wanted the two sides not to take their relationship for granted but to build on commonalities. Australia currently had 9,000 Indian students - second largest number after the U.S. Drawing attention to such facts and repeatedly expressing respect for India's democracy, he sought to give a new, positive twist to the bilateral relationship, political and economic.