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The Indian prime minister’s empty chair October 31, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Weigold, Auriol , trackback

Auriol Weigold

Indian and Australian media have trawled backwards and perhaps forwards, over the message to Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s decision announced in August, that he would not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, taking place this last weekend in October.

Australian print media, notably the Financial Review on 28 October and The Weekend Australian, 29-30 October, have linked Manmohan Singh’s remarkable absence to Australia’s reversal of its agreement to sell uranium to India after Labor won the 2007 election.

Some Indian media were quick to correct that impression, pointing out that their Prime Minister has a heavy schedule of multilateral meetings in November (as has Julia Gillard) but also to indicate that Vice President Hamid Ansari who is in Perth in place of Manmohan Singh is expected to raise the issue of Australian uranium sales again.

The Sydney Morning Herald on 12 August, following the Indian Government’s announcement, similarly cited scheduling conflicts but also drew the conclusion that Australia’s refusal to sell uranium to India (reversing Prime Minister John Howard’s agreement to do so) remains contentious. Greg Sheridan’s piece in The Australian titled “India’s absence a serious failure”, 22 October, went further stating “One of the many things we should be doing … is getting closer to India”. He built his conclusion out of DFAT Secretary, Dennis Richardson’s remark, embedded in a sentence in his Zelman Cowan Oration on 12 October, that “… we have yet to develop a genuine strategic partnership with India …”.

Sheridan again approached Manmohan Singh’s absence from CHOGM as the meeting drew to a close. Re-citing Australia’s discriminatory bar to selling uranium to India his argument concluded that the Indian Prime Minister’s empty chair was the most telling comment on the state of the bilateral relationship (The Weekend Australian, 29-30 October).

Australian media analysis broadly views the relationship with India as at a low point. It has a history of productive engagement interspersed with periods of neglect and disengagement, orchestrated, perhaps indulged in, by both sides. The history of India’s post-independence relationship with Australia was first marred by Prime Minister Menzies’ opposition to India as a republic remaining in the Commonwealth, a poor decision by the Commonwealth in his view, a decision he alluded to in his writing until the 1970’s. The history of bilateral failures that I and other writers have examined needs no replay here. (See, for example, “The Australia-India bilateral relationship—understanding its past to advance its future“, September 9, 2010)

Re-visiting recent intentions to productively engage with India must start with Kevin Rudd’s strong statement after his election as Prime Minister that India would be at the forefront of Australia’s foreign policy (although sale of uranium would not go ahead). His Government also failed to support the regional quadrilateral arrangement proposed by John Howard, leaving India with another cancelled initiative that appeared to be to remove a risk of offending China. This left India again wary of Australian policy shifts – and then there was the highly damaging student debacle.

Despite these set-backs, Manmohan Singh made a joint statement with Rudd on 12 November 2009 that the relationship should be elevated to strategic partner level.

Might India have assumed that a ‘grand gesture’ by Australia in a Labor Party policy shift on uranium sales was still possible? Arguably there were grounds for that view. A year before the joint statement, on 6 September 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group authorized a waiver that permitted uranium exports to India. Australia supported the waiver, arguably giving India the impression that India’s nuclear credentials, recognized by the United States in their Indo-US nuclear agreement, were accepted by Australia too.

This has not been the case. Kevin Rudd at the start of CHOGM stated in strong terms that Australia would not sell uranium to India and that the bilateral relationship did not depend on that. But, as Sheridan also remarked on 22 October in The Australian, “It takes two to tango …”.



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