Australia uranium wins Indian hearts
Australia has followed on the footsteps of the United States, France, UK, Russia, South Korea, Canada, etc in entering into nuclear cooperation agreements with India. It was in late 2008, that the United States had opened the door for India in the comity of powerful nuclear nations by signing a historic and pathbreaking civil nuclear cooperation agreement in the face of stiff international opposition. Since then India has been able to win the confidence of other powerful nuclear nations like France, Canada, UK, etc. Russia has always been a partner in India’s civil nuclear programme. However, the latest step by Australia, after seven years of intense domestic debate and last two years of bilateral negotiations with India, will increase India’s profile in international nuclear community as a responsible nuclear power without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott, who became the first state guest outside the SAARC region, on bilateral visit to New Delhi, signed a historic Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with India on September 5, 2014. This deal will facilitate the sale of uranium fuel to India, without which India’s 20 nuclear power plants are compelled to run on partial capacity. Australia is endowed with one-third of world’s uranium resources and exports 7,000 tonnes of it annually. But India was out of bounds for Australian uranium, because India continues to be a non-signatory to the NPT. Now, probably, a resurgent India has encouraged Australia to enter into a nuclear deal and sanction the supply of uranium to India. After the deal was inked between the head of the Atomic Energy Commission R.K. Sinha and Australian High Commissioner Patrick Suckling,
Prime Minister Abbott commented, “Today, we signed a significant Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement because Australia trusts India to do the right thing in this area, just as it has done the right thing in every area since independence almost 70 years ago.’’
Praising India’s credentials as nuclear power state, Abbott said, “Hardly any country in this planet has been a model citizen like India. That is why we are happy to trust India with our uranium in the months and years.” Reciprocating the sentiments Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the agreement as a “historic milestone” in bilateral ties. He said, “It is a reflection of a new level of mutual trust and confidence in our relations and will open a new chapter in our bilateral cooperation. It will support India’s efforts to fuel its growth with clean energy and minimise the carbon footprint of its growth.”
Besides nuclear cooperation, another highlight of the Abbott-Modi meeting was the joint declaration on defence and security cooperation, in which they committed to strengthen the defence and security partnership and welcomed growing cooperation in defence, counter-terrorism, cyber policy, transnational crime, disarmament and nonproliferation, humanitarian assistance, disaster management and peacekeeping. They called for deepening the framework of defence and security cooperation to guide the bilateral engagement in these and other priority areas.
The two leaders cleared the plans of the two navies to have bilateral annual maritime exercises to be held early next year, for which preparations have already commenced. Abbott and Modi noted the importance of maritime dimension and welcomed discussions on maritime security in the ongoing disarmament and non-proliferation official level dialogue.
Thus Australia will be another prominent US ally, with which India has signed a nuclear cooperation agreement and agreed for defence and security cooperation. Along with US, Australia was in the forefront of imposing sanctions on India after the May 1998 Pokhran nuclear explosions, when the Australian Government even decided to withdraw its Defence Attaché from New Delhi. Thus, from a reluctant to strong partner, Australia will now enter into full-fledged defence and security cooperation with India. Being a leading Indian Ocean maritime power India needed such a friend in the face of increasing Chinese naval forays in the Indian Ocean. It was Australia which initially proposed a quadrilateral alliance between India, US, Japan and Australia in 2007 when all the four countries along with Singapore exercised for the first time in the Bay of Bengal and later all the four met in Tokyo for consultations. But the strong Chinese demarche forced Australia to backtrack and the idea has since been allowed to die. Australia cannot afford to antagonise China and India also cannot appear to be ganging up against China with its rivals. However, the Abbott-Modi Joint Declaration is an indication that the two countries will be a partner in jointly safeguarding their maritime interests in the Indian Ocean, which touches the shores of both the countries.
Hence the two Prime Ministers highlighted the concrete steps towards more effective practical cooperation in the Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) and noted that India and Australia would work closely to further strengthen the organisation in the priority areas of maritime security and piracy, fisheries management; disaster risk reduction; tourism and cultural exchanges, academic and S&T cooperation, and trade and investment facilitation. Both countries agreed to take this collaboration to a higher level at the next Council of Ministers meeting in Perth in October 2014.
There was a political divide in Australia for entering into bilateral defence and nuclear cooperation agreements of such strategic nature. The Australian Government under a liberal Prime Minister John Howard had declared its intention to sell uranium to India but was overturned by the next Labour Party-led by Kevin Rudd, which has traditionally been opposed to supplying nuclear fuel to countries which have not signed the NPT and CTBT. Later, in 2011 the next Prime Minister Julia Gillard revised the Labour Party ruling not to sell uranium to India. Julia Gillard started nuclear deal negotiations with India which took more than two years to conclude.
Unlike US, France, Korea and Russia who are interested in selling their nuclear reactors to India, Australia will become a reliable partner in running these reactors through its uranium. Though India would not be heavily dependent on Australian uranium, as India has already started getting supplies from Kazakhstan, with whom a nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in 2012. However, a nuclear deal with Australia has special significance, as it will give more options for India to import the nuclear fuel at competitive rates and with lesser preconditions.
Significantly, Australia has also decided to extend support to India to be able to sit on the high tables of the restricted nuclear clubs of the world—the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. Australian support in these exclusive nuclear clubs will be extremely vital for India. Prime Minister Abbott also reiterated his government’s support to India as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott at the joint press statements in New Delhi