Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:20 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:20 | SYDNEY

Don't panic about our India relations


Rory Medcalf


3 March 2008 14:05

Quite a beat-up today from The Australian’s man in New Delhi. Relying on a sample size of precisely one opinion piece by one member of India’s vast pantheon of foreign affairs commentators, along with one quote from an anonymous Indian official, Bruce Loudon implies that Australia-India relations are already in real trouble over the Rudd Government’s decision not to sell uranium to India.

Having just had several days of in-depth discussions in New Delhi with a rather larger and more representative range of Indian analysts, officials, journalists, parliamentarians and taxi drivers, I am convinced that such is not the case. Yes, it is a tricky time, and the uranium issue is a sensitive one. But both Governments are showing considerably more patience with each other, privately and publicly, than Loudon’s pastiche would suggest.

For a start, he bases his article largely on a column by Brahma Chellaney, who he calls ‘one of India’s most influential foreign affairs commentators’.  Now I know Brahma, including from my time as a diplomat in New Delhi. I quite like his work – not because he is a conduit to the prevailing wisdom in India but because he is such an authentic contrarian. (I’m less won over by the other characteristics of his writing: an unremitting advocacy of Indian strategic power, and vitriol for those who would moderate it.) To suggest that he speaks for the Indian Government, or indeed has large policy influence, is utterly wrong. And in any case, even Chellaney’s original article was more interesting and nuanced than Loudon’s choice excerpts would suggest.

Then there’s the one-liner from a nameless Indian official who claims Chellaney is saying ‘what many of us feel’. My rather different impression was that official India can live with the Rudd Government’s current no-sales stance on uranium for some time yet, provided Australia is serious about constructive dialogue on non-proliferation issues and advancing the relationship in other areas. India wants to develop ties with Australia across the board, with the (not unrealistic) hope that within a few years Canberra will reconsider the uranium sales question – by which time India may finally have concluded its enabling deals with the US and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and construction work will have advanced on the new civilian reactors for which Australian uranium would come in so handy.

This isn’t to say that there is no discomfort in India about the noises the Rudd Government has been making. But the chief worries are not as Loudon suggests. The first is that Australia might yet try in some way to block the passage of the US-India nuclear deal through the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. India, the US and other heavyweight supporters of the deal (including the UK, France and Russia) will want the Rudd Government to think long and hard about whether it really wants to stick its neck out on this one. An Australian veto in the NSG really would give Loudon, Chellaney and Mr Anonymous Official something to froth about.

The second issue is Australia’s recently-announced decision not to participate in any effort this year to repeat last May’s quadrilateral dialogue involving the US, India and Japan. As outlined in my recent piece in The Diplomat, this was never as important an institution as its supporters or its critics claimed. Australia’s ‘withdrawal’ should not have been a big deal, since nobody was really proposing a second round of the dialogue anyway, not since its champion Shinzo Abe stepped down as Japan’s PM in September. But, yes, there is the kernel of a problem here, with some in India concerned about the start of a possible Australian tilt towards China.

It is all about perception. The situation is entirely salvageable, but to nip such problems of misperception in the bud, Kevin Rudd should reach out to India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sooner rather than later, especially since India is conspicuously not on Rudd's forthcoming international itinerary. In the meantime, I encourage Messrs. Loudon, Chellaney and Anonymous Official to read the unequivocally pro-India language in last week’s AUSMIN communiqué which I (unlike some) believe was quite within the comfort levels of the Rudd Government and its pro-Indian Minister for Foreign Affairs.