LONDON – The decision by the Australian government to revoke 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-U.S. and India-Japan-U.S. economic and security partnerships.
Not surprisingly, China’s Global Times has warned that the United States is trying to “form a gang” against China’s territorial claims on the South China Sea.
The U.S. remains a central player in Asia and has always been so. The much-maligned Bush administration effectively changes 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 buildup in the region, the U.S. needs to reassure its allies in the region that it remains committed to regional stability.
As President Barack Obama declared during his recent trip to Australia, “In the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.”
Washington has been working to transform the U.S.-Australian partnership from “an Asia-Pacific alliance to an Indo-Pacific alliance.”
The U.S. military presence in Australia will allow Washington to have a greater and more dispersed military footprint in the all-important Indian Ocean region. It is Australia that has been asking the U.S. to view the Pacific and Indian oceans as a unified theater of operations.
The U.S. announced a permanent military presence in Australia and the move to send 250 U.S. Marines to bases there for six-month tours starting next summer, eventually rotating 2,500 troops through the country, is being widely viewed as the start of a new more aggressive positioning of the U.S. vis-à-vis China in the region.
Meanwhile, the Labour government’s decision to reverse Australian policy of allowing the sale of uranium to India as enunciated by its predecessor had been a big blow to Australia-India ties. It was Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister who had imposed the ban on the grounds that India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Washington had to pull out all the stops in convincing the Julia Gillard government that, given the strategic importance of India, Canberra needed to change its policy on uranium sales.
And Gillard could point to the U.S.-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 nonproliferation credentials while continuing to send uranium to China, which has been the most important factor in the weakening of the nonproliferation regime in view 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, of which Australia is a member, decided to carve out an exception for nuclear materials exports to 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 sales to India.
The rapidly changing strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific 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.
President Obama was in Asia to underscore America’s commitment to the regional stability at a time when he is trying to wrap up two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already emphasized, “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”
At a time when talk of American decline and retrenchment from global commitments has 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 recent 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 earlier where, much to China’s annoyance, the U.S. 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 increases, most regional states are eager for greater economic, political and military engagement with the United States.
It is in this broader context that India’s emerging role in the region should be assessed.
India is emerging as a crucial balancer in the Asia-Pacific, and regional states are recognizing New Delhi’s growing clout. This is surely reflected in Australia’s decision to reconsider its ban on the sale of uranium to India.
That an Australian Labour government, traditionally considered a nonproliferation hawk, should take this decision is reflective of the changing priorities of Canberra.
And the fact 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 America in decline continues to play in supporting Indian ambitions in the region and globally.
Harsh V. Pant, a professor of defense studies at King’s College, London, writes on South Asian relations.