Column: Time for strategic bonding with Australia

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: Sep 5 2014, 09:45am hrs
When they meet in Delhi today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott should, hopefully, clinch the long-awaited agreement on civil nuclear cooperation that would allow Canberra to export uranium to India.

But the two leaders should also look beyond the nuclear issue and lay the foundation for enduring defence and security cooperation that will contribute to peace and stability in Asia and the Indo-Pacific littoral.

The nuclear deal is indeed an important breakthrough in bilateral relations. It is, in essence, about burying the past, when differences over non proliferation issues constrained the engagement between the two countries. These differences boiled over when Australia reacted sharply against the Indian nuclear tests in May 1998.

Canberra found it hard to export uranium even after Delhi concluded a historic civil nuclear initiative with Washington that ended more than three decades of Indias atomic isolation. There were deep divisions within the Australian political class on allowing uranium exports to India.

As part of its strong and unilateral non-proliferation commitments, Australia had decided long years ago that it will not export uranium to countries that did not sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The problem for Australia was that the India-U.S. nuclear initiative was about finding a way to circumvent the question of NPT.

While India was not in a position to sign the NPT, it offered strong assurances to the international community that it will not use material and technology obtained through international cooperation for military purposes. India also reaffirmed its impeccable non-proliferation record and expressed full support to the global non-proliferation regime.

The challenge in Australia was to get the political elite to look beyond the NPT, understand the value of Indias integration into the global nuclear order and above all appreciate the broader benefits of building a lasting partnership with Delhi.

To their credit, Prime Minister

Abbott and his predecessors in both Liberal and Labour parties, worked hard to overcome the internal political differences and get the country change its long-standing policy on uranium exports by taking a strategic view of the relations with India.

Once the deal is through, Australia could become one of the important sources of natural uranium exports. The real story, however, lies beyond uranium. Australia is rich in mineral resources and is a natural long-term partner for Indias industrial growth. Whichever way Delhis strategy for energy security might evolve in the coming years, Australia, with its abundant coal and natural gas resources, will loom large in Indias calculus.

With one of the worlds strongest mining sectors, Australia can help India exploit its own natural resources in an environmentally sustainable way and thereby address one of the major current constraints on Indias economic growth.

Contrary to the perception that the country is all about mining, Australia boasts of a strong science and technology base that can feed nicely into Indias plans for economic and industrial advancement. Australia is also home to a prosperous and rapidly-growing Indian minority that is emerging as an important bridge between the two countries.

While the natural complementarities in the economic domain are beginning to express themselves, much political work remains to be done on boosting security cooperation between the two countries. For long, Delhi and Canberra have remained far apart in Asia despite shared political values.

During the Cold War, Delhi viewed Canberra as merely extending US power in Asia. Canberra, in turn, saw India aligned with the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War and the improvement in Indo-US relations set a very different stage for the bilateral relationship.

Canberras relentless wooing of Delhi in recent years has begun to change Indian perceptions. There is growing recognition in Delhi today that Australia, which brings so many independent strategic equities to table, is a valuable partner for India in stabilising Asia and the Indo-Pacific littoral.

Asias changing geopolitical contextthe rise of Chinese power, Beijings growing assertiveness on territorial disputes, the uncertainties in the US policy towards the region, and the emerging fissures in the regional institutions demands that India and Australia strengthen their bilateral partnership as well as reach out to third parties.

When then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard came to India nearly three years ago, the two sides agreed to initiate a trilateral dialogue with Indonesia. Modi and Abbott must now draw Japan into a similar framework. This expanding circles of engagement among the regional powers would help reduce Asias vulnerabilities to the twists and turns in the US-China relationship.

Delhi and Canberra must complement this by deepening their own bilateral defence cooperation. Last year, AK Antony became the first Indian defence minister to visit Australia. But the lack of interest in defence diplomacy under the UPA government meant the two sides were a long way from realising the full potential of bilateral security cooperation.

As Modi outlines a vigorous approach to Asia, and Abbott brings great enthusiasm for the India partnership, the two leaders must boldly push for a strong defence ties. Besides military exercises that have already been agreed upon, Delhi and Canberra must begin sharing naval intelligence and pool their maritime assets dispersed across the Indo-Pacific. They should also initiate joint training and operations with other Asian partners like Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and Japan who share the objective of freedom of navigation and the security of the sea lines of communication.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research

Foundation and a contributing editor for The Indian Express