Time to admit India's future as world power
July 28, 2007
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OF ALL the foreign policy shocks delivered to Australia and other allies in Asia by the US President, George Bush, probably none will resound more deeply than his embrace of India as a nuclear power.
This week's testing of the water by the Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, about allowing uranium exports to India, a non-signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, shows how Canberra is still struggling to catch up.
In March 2005 the Bush Administration announced that it sought "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century. We understand fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement."
In July that year, Mr Bush received the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and followed up with a deal. India's nuclear weapons status, resulting from its open tests in 1998, was accepted, exports of nuclear fuel were cleared for civilian use, and remaining controls on sensitive technology transfers were lifted.
In return, India had to put up walls between its military and civilian nuclear installations, and allow international inspections. It also had to tighten its own controls on technology of possible military use.
Australia has been caught between the drive by the Prime Minister, John Howard, to include India on its list of customers for uranium, and Canberra's longstanding policy that it will only export nuclear fuel to non-profileration signatory countries.
India is among three significant countries that did not sign the non-profileration treaty when it was launched in 1969-70. Pakistan followed India by going overtly nuclear in 1998, and Israel has a
well-known but undeclared capability. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and tested a bomb last year.
From what Mr Downer has disclosed, our proposal is for a bilateral safeguards agreement. Once India has met the US requirement to separate its civilian reactors and put them under inspection, we can export away, knowing our uranium won't end up in warheads or powering nuclear submarines.
But let's not be under any illusion the US is out to limit India as a nuclear power. The draft agreement just reached in Washington in effect allows India to continue testing and to reprocess spent fuel.
Even without these concessions, as many anti-nuclear activists point out, providing uranium to India's civilian nuclear power industry helps its weapons program, by allowing authorities to devote the very limited supplies of unsafeguarded domestic uranium to warhead production. But as one acute observer of India, Edward Luce, observes in his recent book, In Spite of the Gods, this is the purpose of the Bush plan. "The deal would give India the fuel and cover to accelerate its nuclear weapons program and counterbalance the Chinese."
This is a seismic shift in our region's geopolitics. So it is puzzling why the Howard Government has been so slow to educate the public about what it means, and step up the institutional and intellectual investments to engage with the India being promoted as a major power by Washington.
The study of India and its languages at Australian universities has been run down over the Howard years, and much of the remaining expertise is being lured away to Singapore.
September's Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Sydney would have been a golden opportunity to step up that engagement, allowing Mr Howard to reverse his lame-footed handling of India at the start of his prime ministership.
In 1996 Mr Howard decided not to attend a $3 million Australian promotion in India, and refused to back India's attempt to enter APEC that year, while meekly allowing the US to bring in Russia.
The 10-year moratorium on new APEC memberships will expire only at this year's meeting but Mr Howard could at least have used his position as this year's host to canvass other member economies about inviting the Indian Prime Minister as a special guest.
The central place of global warming on this agenda makes the involvement of India only more valuable, the more so as Manmohan Singh would be the only professional economist, and a very good one, among the leaders at the summit.
Instead, Mr Howard shows no signs of initiative. We even have suggestions from visiting US officials that India's membership application should be put on the backburner because it joined other emerging countries in a recent walkout at the Doha trade round over the intransigence of Europe and the US on agricultural trade. Let's think for ourselves instead.