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Is Australia evolving its position on uranium sales to India?

November 14, 2009 16:33 IST
India and Australia seem to have overcome several thorny issues that have bedevilled their relationship, including the recent attacks on Indian students in that country, by forging a security and strategic partnership that ranges from maintaining the safety and security of sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean to starting a CEOs forum to consolidate the relationship.

It is not clear, however, if Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who ended his visit to India on Friday, bit the bullet and told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he would work on his Labour Party back home and convince them to slowly withdraw its ban on the sale of uranium to India.

Rudd had waxed eloquent about growing cooperation in energy and mineral resources between both countries, and at a public speech at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) yesterday, admitted that Australia's long-standing ban on uranium sales was not directed at India. "The matter is between the two governments, it is not a matter for the press," said Tim Huggins, spokesperson for the Australian High Commission.

But highly placed Australian sources confirmed to Business Standard that Rudd's own position on uranium sales to India was an "evolving one," that he was working on reversing the Labour Party's historical position on uranium sales to India and could do this around the time of the national elections in October 2010.

In order to cement the already-strong relationship with India, Rudd knew he would have to iron out this particular wrinkle, the sources confirmed. Australia's previous Conservative government led by John Howard had promised uranium sales, a promise that had been broken by Rudd's government when it came to power.

One way to persuade the nuclear hardliners at home would be to argue that India should be encouraged to move to clean, nuclear power because its emissions from coal-fired
plants was having a major impact on climate change.

But Indian Foreign Office officials, tight-lipped about any signals from Rudd, shrugged their shoulders when asked if India still needed Australian uranium. "After Australia back-tracked, we signed MoUs with Namibia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan," one senior official said.

Rudd had indicated at the ICWA speech that the Labour party had done its bit by not standing in the way of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA when it voted on the Indo-US nuclear deal over 2007-8. But, realising that Delhi had taken the snub badly, and that in the coming years several large business deals were at stake with India, especially in the energy, minerals, power and the IT-education sector, Rudd didn't want to cede the India relationship to the conservative opposition, the sources admitted.

The partnership signed in Delhi yesterday is a case in point. "It's a coming of age of the middle-level G-20 powers like India and Australia," an official said, pointing to the mechanisms for maritime and aviation security, a continuing defence dialogue, besides initiatives in joint solar cooling where the sun's rays are used to cool agricultural output.

The reference in the declaration on security cooperation to "information exchange and policy coordination on regional affairs in the Asia region," officials said, was a reference to balance of power discussions in Asia which was dominated by the growing power of China.

The PM also said that the joint study group on the feasibility of a free trade agreement would be released soon and agreed that its recommendations should be cleared quickly.
Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi