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India's snub a cause for alarm

By Thom Woodroofe - posted Thursday, 10 November 2011

The absence of Manmohan Singh, whose country accounts for half the population of the Commonwealth, was officially flagged in August without explanation, but it has since been blamed - officially at least - on a heavy schedule of international meetings.

But this is only half of it.

Sure, in the space of a fortnight after CHOGM, the 79-year-old was due to attend the G20 in France, a regional co-operation meeting in the Maldives and observe Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation for the first time in Hawaii before finally the East Asian Summit in Indonesia; but it is hardly any more demanding than for other leaders travelling greater distances to the same meetings.


So important is India's role in the Commonwealth that some have suggested that Prime Minister Julia Gillard should have considered rescheduling the event. John Howard did this for then British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2002.

Though India did send its Vice-President Hamid Ansari, at least one Indian commentator relegated this to "sending a local district cricket team to play a Test match against Australia in Sydney".

But the reality is that for Mr Singh - and India - Australia's ban on uranium exports has now become such a thorn in the relationship that a quick trip for a multilateral forum, let alone a bilateral, is not even palatable.

This is an extremely dangerous position for Australia to be in.

Though Mr Howard reversed Australia's ban on uranium exports to India in 2007, this was quickly reinstated by Kevin Rudd once he became prime minister.

But his cheeky remark alongside the Resources Minister Martin Ferguson last week that they are both looking forward to the debate at the ALP National Conference on the issue was telling, not least because most of the Cabinet are closet supporters of a reversal.


The zero-sum mentality of the ban is based on the fact that despite India already being a nuclear power, it has not signed the archaic and exclusive Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty that gives five powers a monopoly on the right to atomic arms.

And though uranium is clearly linked to the production of nuclear weapons, Australia's reluctance naively disregards that India is already a nuclear-armed power and that the benefits are much wider - and greener - than often regarded.

Safeguards such as making the trade conditional on the cessation of the production of fissile material for weapons could also be embedded within any bilateral deal.

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This article was first published in The West Australian on November 7, 2011

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About the Author

Thom Woodroofe, 21, is a foreign affairs analyst combining journalism, research, teaching and community work to advance an understanding of Australia's place in the world.

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