New Delhi: Australia is planning to deepen its strategic engagement with India after the ruling Labor Party over the weekend lifted a decades-old ban on the export of uranium to Asia’s third largest economy, removing what was seen as an irritant in bilateral relations.
Australian defence minister Stephen Smith, currently on a visit to New Delhi—the first by an Australian cabinet minister to India after the ban was withdrawn on Sunday—said he had discussed increased interaction between the defence services of the two nations during his meeting with his Indian counterpart A.K. Antony on Wednesday.
More joint military exercises, increased port calls by naval ships, a dialogue between think tanks and a visit of the Indian defence minister to Australia next year were among the ideas discussed with Antony, he said.
Inching closer: Indian defence minister A.K. Antony (front left) with Australian counterpart Stephen Smith in New Delhi on Wednesday.
“There is no doubt that the decision on uranium has removed a potential irritant from the relationship and that sets the scene for even further practical cooperation, which is a good thing from Australia’s perspective,” Smith, who met home minister P. Chidambaram and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon on Thursday, told reporters in New Delhi.
He was referring to Australia’s overturning its long-standing policy of not selling uranium—used as fuel in power reactors and to make weapons—to countries such as India that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Labor Party, which came to power in 2007 and suspended talks on uranium exports to India, on Sunday voted to reverse the policy with 206 votes in favour to 185 against. India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and is scouring the international market for uranium to set up nuclear plants to power economic growth.
Though India and Australia signed a joint declaration on security cooperation in 2009, both sides could not make much progress given the impasse on uranium exports and attacks on Indian students in Australia. But ties have improved after Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced plans for a review of the ban last month, with India and Australia holding a rare dialogue on East Asia.
Smith was one of those who spoke in favour of the proposal and in New Delhi on Thursday said the decision on uranium sales to India was also taken based on the recognition that “India is the world’s largest democracy, is a rising power and one of the three great powers in the first half of this century” and should be accorded that status.
The actual export of uranium could take a while with talks on a bilateral pact scheduled to begin sometime next year, he added.
According to Smith, India and Australia could look at more formalized bilateral exchanges between the navies of the two countries. “It seems to A.K. Antony and I that the practical operation area would be the navy. We are?the?two?premier?Indian Ocean naval countries,” he said, adding both sides had given it to the officials to work through the details.
A measure of the transformation in bilateral ties could be gauged by the fact that Australia had briefed India on US plans to station its marines at an Australian base in Darwin. Smith said India has been taken into confidence before the announcement by US President Barack Obama during a visit to Australia last month.
According to Smith, Australia viewed the US presence in the region as a force of peace, stability and was in favour of an enhancement of it. The stationing of US marines at the Darwin base was a “practical example of this,” he said, adding that this was not a move aimed at China, whose rise has generated unease among many of its smaller neighbours. China too had been briefed about the US move before Obama made the announcement, Smith said.