India has sparred with Australia for years over that country’s insistence that it would not supply uranium until New Delhi signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Both the ruling Australian Labour Party and the opposition conservatives have supported a decision to waive this requirement for India.
Yellowcake from Down Under is, in theory, available for India to use. What is more important is that the removal of this diplomatic thorn makes it possible for the two countries to pursue what, in the long term, is more important: a genuine strategic relationship.
It is quite possible India will never buy uranium from Australia. Australia still requires unusually tight monitoring of the installations that use its ore. This has been acceptable to China, but sovereignty touchy India may find this hard to swallow. In any case, India has already sown up supply contracts with other major uranium exporters including Kazakhstan, the biggest. Finally, the future of nuclear power in India continues to be uncertain following the Fukushima nuclear accident. At the very least, the accretion of nuclear power to India’s energy portfolio seems set to be slow and arduous. But the removal of the uranium issue opens the door for India and Australia to do much more with each other.
New Delhi has found it politically difficult to accept the idea of a closer military or intelligence relationship with a country that is willing to offer a country like China, with a clear history of nuclear proliferation, access to sensitive minerals but will not extend this to India. What can India and Australia do with each other? The most obvious is the Indian Ocean. A shrinking United States Navy is retreating from the world’s oceans, including much of the southern Indian Ocean. Given its economic dependence on the sea lanes and the vulnerability of its coastline, India needs to be working to fill the void. It cannot and should not do so alone. Australia is an obvious partner in this area both in terms of geography and military capacity — it has the sixth largest military budget in the Asia-Pacific. Even terrorism is an area of convergence. The most common affiliation of Islamic terrorists arrested in Australia is the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The two countries already have a fairly high degree of civil society cooperation. The Indian diaspora in Australia is among the largest and fastest growing in the world. Australia is proving a key destination for an Indian private sector hunting for mineral and energy resources that it is being disallowed from obtaining at home and being constrained by China’s deeper pockets overseas. Uranium should be treated as the symbol of something new in the air between two democracies, something that is about how their governments can secure a common future beyond merely the latest cricket strategies.