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Can the decision to export uranium to India heal a fractured relationship?

There are fears that Australian uranium could be put to military uses by India. AAP

Prime Minister Julia Gillard today announced that the Australian Labor Party will debate its opposition to exporting uranium to India.

India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty says it needs the uranium to provide fuel for nuclear energy plants to power its economic expansion.

Opponents of exporting uranium, including the Greens and left faction of the ALP fear it will be used in India’s nuclear weapons program.

Many at the highest levels of Australian business and politics are very keen to work to improve what has often been a fractious relationship with the world’s second most populous nation.

The Conversation spoke with Canberra University expert Dr. Auriol Weigold on whether overturning the ban on uranium exports could help build better relations between the two nations.

Will this re-define Australia’s relationship with India?

I think that probably it will, for a number of reasons. Firstly because it may restore some trust and faith in Australia by India. We have “upset” India a number of times in the last few years, not least by denying them uranium sales that had been previously approved.

I would hope that although it was no longer a grand strategic gesture that the fact of selling uranium will hopefully free up a lot more of the bilateral initiatives we should be taking.

How will this decision be received in India?

I would think that it could go either way and probably will. We have all had experience of the Indian media and the various takes on issues that they can make. In terms of being interpreted as the hand of friendship being extended, hopefully, but it will be perceived that we have an agenda too.

Why have two countries with a great deal in common both politically and in shared interests like cricket had such a poor relationship historically?

It goes back in effect to the first few years after India became independent when Menzies became Prime Minister in 1949. He and Nehru didn’t hit it off but in a sense that is immaterial, because the real barrier was the gulf in their foreign policies.

Australia aligned with the Western powers and India non-aligned. There were very few areas where we could actually work together in those days beyond the Colombo Plan, aid measures and a bit of trade. We were set on very different foreign policy paths and that was the start of the problem.

Can Australia and India quickly become close economic and political allies?

The whole uranium issue still has to go to the Labor conference here. Even if it is successfully gets through and I imagine there’ll be a lot of pressure for it to get through it will then take some time to put in place. There is going to be a gap in any case where India might remain a little bit suspicious about when and if it might happen.

This has been sort of wariness has been a repeated element in our relationship. It goes right back to SEATO and the Baghdad Pact when we were in support of one course of action and India was not. We and they make policy decisions which one of the other disapprove of. We then blame each other and these stand offs kept occurring right up to the present with this uranium issue.

All these issues were played as substantial disappointments for India and were seen as setbacks. So how quickly that will be set aside is difficult to say and I’m sure in the future there will be other policy issues that we espouse and Indians don’t. This sort of blame game may or may not disappear overnight but I would be very surprised if it did.

There is a perception in Australia that the Indians are very quick to take offence at what Australia does. Is that fair?

That is a difficult one. On the surface it would appear that we offend India regularly. I think there is little doubt that in the current situation particularly until the uranium issue is resolved India may well go on doing that.

But we have to still remember that the Indian media beats these things up enormously so government to government lines may be different, but what we are going to read in the Indian media may well continue to be critical and more than a bit carping.

Does that translate to the view of the average – as much as one can say that – Indian?

In some ways it is. There is a great deal of ignorance in India about Australia just as there is great deal of ignorance here as well. I think that both are cycles that are feeding each other. What the increasing readership and audience of Indian media hears is then what they think until it works through some of the issues for itself.

Of course with more and more people going further with their education and particularly higher education [in India] one would hope that perception will gradually change. You’d have to hope we break through this cycle of misinformation. What the catalyst will be, it may be uranium, who knows?

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