Uranium exports: The Indian view

Julia Gillard made a “special case” for exporting uranium to India. EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s decision to overturn the Australian ban on exporting uranium is aimed at re-balancing our relationship with the world’s largest democracy and a rising economic power in the region.

But how has the decision been taken in India, home to a cacophonous media that has not been afraid to attack Australia over a range of matters in recent years.

And why is Australia making a “special exception” for India, which is not signatory to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT?) Is India indeed a special case that warrants evaluation on different grounds from other nations.

The Conversation spoke with Professor Amitabh Mattoo, head of the Australia-India Institute and a former member of the National Knowledge Commission, a high-level advisory group to the Prime Minister of India.

How will this decision be received in India?

The decision from what reports I have seen has been widely welcomed across the political spectrum in India. The Foreign Minister of India has hailed the announcement of the decision by Prime Minister Gillard and so have several members of the opposition, so there is a wide welcome.

Quite clearly there are going to be the contrarians and there are going to be anti-nuclear activists, a small section of them, who have voiced concerns about the export.

But other than that I would say the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Clearly this is not an issue that brings people out onto the street. Australia is not as much on the radar of public opinion in India as it would like to be. Nevertheless, in terms of educated opinion, there has been great support.

How does the notion of India being a “special case” change the relationship?

I think people have been generally surprised why an exception is being made for India and I would suggest there are several reasons.

First of all, the India record on non-proliferation has been impeccable unlike many of the countries which are part of the NPT and which export nuclear materials to third countries. India has never been known to export nuclear material or nuclear technology to another country and has consistently and constantly put into place export controls which would make it difficult for any grey trade in nuclear materials as well.

Why hasn’t India signed the NPT?

India’s opposition to the non-proliferation treaty has always been based on principle. For a long time, India argued there was “nuclear apartheid” in place because of the NPT. In other words, there was discrimination between countries which did not have nuclear weapons in terms of access to civil nuclear energy and technology while there was no legal commitment in the NPT from the nuclear weapons states to eliminate their weapons in a timeframe.

Opposition to the NPT has been consistent and long-standing long before India acquired nuclear weapons.

What else marks out India as special case?

I think there is a recognition that India is rising and that that in the next 15 years, in terms of the politics and security of the Asia-Pacific region, India and China will be two of the principal actors and to exclude or isolate India is in no one’s interest.

India is the world’s largest democracy and it is one of the few post-colonial states which have consistently remained committed to multi-party democracy. It is also one of the most diverse societies. It is in many ways an example to other countries in the rest of the world in democracy and through its multiculturalism.

Rewarding a country like this is in everyone’s interests.

What direct impact will this have on Indian-Australian relations in the future?

Few countries have so much in common by way of both values and interests and yet there hasn’t been a conversation between the elite and the opinion makers of the kind that can translate this relationship into a real partnership.

One of the reasons has been episodes that have created a legacy of bitterness. During the Cold War India and Australia were on different sides of the divide and Australia reacted very stridently to India’s nuclear tests and then there was the Indian media hysteria related to attacks on Indian students in Victoria.

In the absence of a real conversation, even a single issue can derail ties. But what was clear was that symbolically, it was important to get this one irritant of non-export of uranium away for the relations to truly blossom. I think there is a recognition on that front.

All in all I think that it is a decision which recognises India’s potential, past record and the potential power of a bilateral relationship.

Can we fast-track relations to become genuine and close trade, political, security and cultural partners?

Economically there is already a fast track. India imports over $20bn a year from Australia, primarily natural resources. That economic relationship is warming and is going to go from strength to strength.

Similarly, in terms of cultural relations Australia is emerging as a preferred destination for India tourists and for students despite the unfortunate episodes of two years ago. Australia is still a preferred destination for many students from India so in terms of education and tourism, I think we will see more forward movement.

What is missing is a strategic input. What is interesting is that while Prime Minister Gillard made the announcement in Canberra, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd was in Bengaluru taking part in a meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.

What that means is that there is now a recognition that India and Australia, together with other countries in the region like the United States, need to work to create a new collective security architecture in place in Asia, not against China, but in place with China, to ensure the peaceful rise of great powers remains peaceful and that conflicts of the past remain in the past.

What is interesting is that while Asia is becoming the economic powerhouse of the world, in terms of its security it seems to be much like 19th century Europe.