Melbourne: The year 2007 could be viewed as the most tumultuous in Indo-Australian ties, which reached a new high when the Howard government expressed desire to sell uranium to New Delhi but the handling of the case of Indian doctor Mohd Haneef, wrongly accused of involvement in the failed UK car bombings, caused huge embarrassment to Canberra.
In August, then Prime Minister John Howard’s conditional offer to sell uranium to India elevated the bilateral relationship to a new level. For the Australian government, it meant a drastic shift in policy as it has long opposed selling uranium to countries like India, which have not signed the global nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
However, Howard made it clear that uranium exports were conditional on a satisfactory conclusion of a civilian nuclear deal between India and the US.
Issue of exporting uranium
But, new Prime Minister and Labor party leader Kevin Rudd has pledged to review the Australian government’s decision to export uranium. Rudd’s Labor Party has a strong and vocal disarmament lobby, which is worried that the export deal could spark a regional nuclear arms race.
“Materially and symbolically, the deal is crucial to the relationship,” Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat was quoted as saying by the media. “The Indian government would find it very difficult to understand if a new government reverted to the old policy.”
But the relationship has always been based on “Kangaroo hops” - improvements for a short time, which aren’t sustained, he said.
The controversial case of Haneef, Brisbane-based Indian doctor who was arrested and released over the failed UK bomb plot, was dubbed as the most embarrassing for the Australian government as well as its federal police.
Relations between Australia and India, however, have been at an all time high but an “imbalance exists in the priority that India accords” to the ties, according to Darren Gribble, chairman of the Australia-India Council and former Australian High Commissioner to India.
Partnership on energy security
He hoped the two countries could establish a partnership for energy security. He also expected to see a change in the composition of trade from textiles and leather to information and communication technology and manufactured goods.
He pointed out that since 1997, the bilateral trade had increased to $11 billion. Indian investments in information and communication technology and mining were significant.
After the victory of the Labor party in Australia, its new Foreign Minister Stephen Smith signalled that India would play an increasingly important role in its international relations as he set out a foreign policy agenda with “civility, respect and dignity” at its core.
Stressing on the primacy of Australia’s relationship with the US, Smith singled out India as a nation with which he envisaged closer ties. “India’s remarkable development only encourages me to bring us closer together. I look forward to working with the Indian government and the Indian people to add depth and vigour to our relationship,” he said.
Two-way trade grows
Australia’s two-way trade in goods with India reached $11.4 billion in 2006-07, making India its ninth-largest trading partner. Services trade with India in 2006 stood at $1.9 billion.
The two countries are keen to explore further trading opportunities. In August, they announced a joint feasibility study on whether they should forge a free trade agreement.