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Behind Gillard’s India uranium sale decision November 19, 2011

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

This article first appeared in The Australian on 18 November. The Australian is no longer available on the internet except on subscription.

Julia Gillard would have been more politically comfortable had she left the issue of uranium sales to India rusting in the ‘parking lot’. The pressing questions is therefore: why now?

There are obviously a number of factors involved, but it is clearly no accident that her announcement was made on the eve of the visit of President Obama, who came to announce a new US engagement in Asia and an enhanced role for Australia.

The new US strategic thrust is mainly about the rise of China and relative decline of the US.  With bin Laden dead and after years of US ‘boots on the ground’ in the Middle East and South West Asia, Washington has concluded that its wars are now providing security for others such as China to ‘free ride’, while America pays a price it can ill afford in blood and treasure.  All this saps America’s capacity to play in the real game, which has now shifted to Asia.

Gillard and Obama at APEC – next stop for India?

So where does India fit?

The CIA has assessed that India is a ‘swing state’ in Asia.  As a rapidly rising power with a vast population weighted to youth, India has the long-term potential to be as important an Asian power as China.  As such, how India chooses to lock in to Asia’s security architecture will be crucial to how that architecture is likely to evolve.

Since 1991, military exercising and exchanges between India and the US have gathered pace and developed in sophistication.  The 2005 decision by President Bush to bring India in to the nuclear ‘tent’ was very much part of this developing strategic relationship.  Following the signing of the nuclear agreement, the US signed a number of important ‘end user’ agreements with India, enabling transfer of sophisticated military technologies.  It has even held out the prospect that India might become involved in the production of the F-35 joint strike fighter.

Washington’s unstated intent is to put China off its stride by developing a relationship with another emerging – and democratic – power.  It hopes thereby to be able to ‘manage’ China’s rise from a position of strength.

But viewed from India, a strategic relationship with the US is by no means a ‘done deal’. In fact, there are two views in New Delhi: one, centred on the Ministry of External Affairs, argues that India should stand equidistant between China and the US; while the other, seemingly centring on elements within the staff of the National Security Council and defence establishment, argues that the only way to deal with China is to stand up to it.

At the moment, India is using its relationship with the US to acquire technology and ‘hedge’ in relation to its uncertain relationship with China.  But should that relationship deteriorate, the US relationship would eventually be ‘called in’. That is not to say India would become an ‘ally’ of the US in the formal sense, but that the strategic quality of the relationship would deepen.

The debate in Australia on how to handle the rise of China roughly parallels the one being conducted in India.  Some, like Professor Hugh White, argue that the US should make strategic space for China’s rise in the hope of a ‘concert of powers’ emerging in Asia, of which India would be a member.  Those of a more realist bent argue that China should be dealt with from a position of strength.

Washington’s current reassertion of its off-shore balancing role in Asia is dependent on a series of bilateral relationships, including with Australia, Japan, India and South Korea.  Any attempt to shift this ‘hub and spokes’ model to a multilateral balance is fraught with difficulty, in that it would quickly be perceived by Beijing as an attempt to ‘contain’ China, just as occurred in 2007 with the abortive ‘quadrilateral’ proposal.

The US is therefore essentially engaged in a process of seeking bilaterally to strengthen its relationships, while at the same time indirectly using this process to achieve greater ‘lateral’ connection between the various ‘spokes’, but short of any formal arrangement.  The aim is to approach China’s rise from a position that makes it clear to China that if it does not play by the rules, it could quickly find itself arraigned against a powerful multilateral balance of the ‘like minded’.

Australia-India relations and the sale of uranium are important at many levels and Washington’s China strategy is only one of them.  But firming friendship between India and Australia and a deepening economic relationship reflecting Australia’s commodity supply role would effectively help tie India in with a regional ‘incipient balance’ of the like-minded and mitigate Australia’s dilemma – caught as it currently is between Washington and Beijing.





1. Jai - December 8, 2011

An alliance between US – India – Australia – Japan should be made to contain china… Otherwise China will keep on needling its struggling neighbors to stamp its supremacy… These 4 countries are individually capable of withstanding Chinese threat… So they should join together because China has already made an underground alliance with Pakistan, Srilanka, and N.Korea…