The decision by the Australian government to reconsider its ban on uranium exports to India has underlined the rapidly changing strategic reality in the Asian strategic landscape. When a “concert of democracies" in the Asia-Pacific was mooted under the Bush administration, it drew a lot of flak, but once again Washington is pushing for a trilateral India-Australia-US and India-Japan-US economic and security partnerships. Not surprisingly, China’s Global Times has warned that the US is trying to “form a gang" against China’s territorial claims on the South China Sea.

The US remains a central player in Asia and has always been so. The much-maligned Bush administration effectively changed the contours of America’s Asia policy by reaching out to India via the civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact. Against the backdrop of China’s massive military build-up in the region, the US needs to reassure its allies in the region that it remains committed to regional stability. As US President Barack Obama declared in Australia, “In the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in." Washington has been working to transform the US-Australian partnership from “an Asia-Pacific alliance to an Indo-Pacific alliance".

Photo: Subhav Shukla / PTI

The Labour government’s decision to reverse Australian policy of allowing the sale of uranium to India, as enunciated by its predecessor, has been a big blow to Australia-India ties. It was Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, who had imposed the ban as India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington had to pull out all stops in convincing the Julia Gillard government that given the strategic importance of India, Canberra needed to change its policy on uranium sale. And Gillard could point to the US-India civil nuclear pact that has brought India into the global nuclear mainstream.

Canberra’s ties with New Delhi have been tense in recent months, with the Indian Prime Minister deciding to skip the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth earlier this month. Australia has the world’s largest deposits of uranium, so it makes economic sense for it to sell more to an energy-hungry India. Moreover, it is difficult for Canberra to justify a ban on uranium exports to India, a fellow democracy and a country with impeccable non-proliferation credentials, while continuing to sell uranium to China that has been the most important factor in the weakening of the non-proliferation regime because of its relationship with Pakistan. Even as other nuclear supplier nations have been lining up to sign civil nuclear pacts with India, Australia found itself marginalized. After the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), of which Australia is a member, decided to carve out an exception for India in 2008 by granting it a special waiver, there was no logical reason for Australia to continue with its policy of a ban on uranium sale to India.

The rapidly changing strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region has, once again, been in focus in recent days. Even as Europe struggles to come to terms with its economic decline, major powers in the Asia-Pacific are coming to terms with their region’s rapidly rising economic and political profile. Obama was in Asia to underscore America’s commitment to the regional stability at a time when he is wrapping up two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a time when talks of American decline and retrenchment from global commitments have become de rigueur, the signals coming from Washington are that it has no intention of leaving the Asian strategic landscape. Nor will regional states allow America to lower its profile. After all, the elephant in the room (region) is China’s faster-than-expected ascent in global inter-state hierarchy.

The East Asia Summit was the second gathering in a week that brought American and Chinese officials together for a regional meeting. It followed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii a few days back, where much to China’s annoyance, the US President suggested that Beijing needed to “play by the rules" in international trade. From there, Obama moved to Canberra where he secured new basing rights, even as eight regional states signed up for the Obama administration’s new Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade plan. As the threat of a rising China rises, most regional states are eager for greater economic, political and military engagement with the US.

It is in this broader context that India’s emerging role in the region should be assessed. India is emerging as a critical balancer in the Asia-Pacific and regional states are recognizing New Delhi’s growing clout. This is reflected in Australia’s decision to reconsider its ban on the sale of uranium to India. That a Labour government, traditionally considered a non-proliferation hawk, should take this decision is reflective of the changing priorities of Canberra. And that this could not have happened without American pressure on the Australian government to change its policies should also alert New Delhi to the important role a so-called declining America continues to play in supporting Indian ambitions in the region and globally.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’sCollege, London

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