Australia seeks to draw India into tighter embrace with nuclear deal CANBERRA: Australia, which in the past has expressed serious reservations about New Delhi's nuclear programme, appears extremely keen to close a deal to supply uranium to India. "We see it as a priority and want to move as quickly as possible. The political will certainly exists within this government," Australia's foreign minister Julie Bishop told reporters here even as the two countries were in the middle of their fourth round of talks for a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. It's a sentiment that finds resonance across the five-month-old Liberal-National coalition government of Tony Abbott. "We have a very strong commitment to making this deal happen. We want to be seen as a trusted partner of India," trade and investment minister Andrew Robb said. Both Bishop and Robb were critical of the Kevin Rudd-led Labour government for overturning Liberal predecessor John Howard's decision to supply uranium to India. "The Howard government, in which I was a minister, had signed off on it. Unfortunately, the next government had a different policy," Robb said. "I think it will provide a great opportunity for peaceful power generation. We have 40% of the world's uranium deposits and have a great willingness to ensure that it is made available to India." Peter Varghese, secretary for foreign affairs and trade, made the same point, albeit with the nuanced cautiousness of a career diplomat, when he said, "I think we'll get an agreement on uranium supplies. The Abbott government is very supportive of it. We are very optimistic." Rudd, who was considered an 'Asianist' (and was perhaps best known in the world of foreign policy for his knowledge of Mandarin), said no to uranium supplies to India primarily on the grounds that it is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There are indications that the Abbott government might be willing to dilute some of Australia's monitoring safeguards - for instance, end-user verification - which are actually more stringent than what the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA) mandates and which India has little interest in agreeing to. According to Bishop, "The points of difference are narrowing, we have a couple of things to work through." While she would not elaborate, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, of which Australia is a member, is said to be one of them. (There's also a narrower self-interest in finding a new market for Australia's uranium producers.) The present Australian government's eagerness to improve ties with India is palpable-driven mostly by economic and security reasons, but perhaps also by an element of enthusiasm on the part of Abbott and Bishop for a country that's part of the Commonwealth, is the world's largest democracy, speaks English and plays cricket, and whose diaspora is largely an object of admiration and affection in their adopted country. When asked if it was the head or the heart that was at the core of her government's bid to build proximity with India, Bishop-the first woman to head her country's foreign ministry - said, "Our heart lies with India", adding that her first blog as shadow foreign minister, when in opposition, was on India. Protestations of love aside, India's greatest appeal lies in its 1.2 billion population and the consuming potential they represent, more so as China's once-insatiable hunger for energy shows signs of waning a bit. Also, Indian businessmen are making heavy investments in Australia , led by two $10-billion coal and rail projects by Adani and GVK, both of which were green-lighted by the Abbott government. But there's another, less-openlystated reason for wanting to romance India. Strategically, China's growing military assertiveness in the region has been cause for concern and could help bring Japan, Australia, India and the US into a tighter embrace. These four countries have conducted joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean in various permutations and combinations - bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral. India and Australia are expected to conduct their first-ever bilateral exercise either later this year or next year. For Australia, it's been a delicate balancing act. China remains the elephant in the room in any conversation around security, and government officials in Canberra utter the C-word with great circumspection. Varghese, for instance, was careful to emphasize that furthering relations with Beijing and New Delhi needn't be a "zero-sum game" that one didn't have to be at the cost of another. "As for the US and Japan, we've historically had strong relations with them, and have been upfront with China on that." That's partly because China has played a significant role in spurring minerals-rich Australia's mining boom and economic growth - which for a while took its dollar past the American greenback in value - giving it a clout that transcends even its unmatched status as 'largest trading partner' . But it's also because of China's growing willingness to flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean, as evident from the recent foray of three of its warships into Australia's neighbouring waters, the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. As Rory Metcalf and C Raja Mohan of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a think tank, have written in The Australian , "It has underlined the PLA navy's new capacity to carry out what it calls 'far-sea operations' ... China is going Indo-Pacific ." Of course, China can claim that it is merely seeking to secure the maritime routes upon which it so heavily depends for its energy supplies. A senior government official here, who did not wish to be identified , quoted Robert Zoellick, who was a top US state department official before becoming World Bank president, as saying, "It is in everyone's interest to have China as a responsible stakeholder" , before adding , "But increasingly, China is not looking like a responsible stakeholder . It has made a judgment that it will be more aggressive in staking its territorial claims. There must be respect for international laws. We need to manage down these tensions." The Abbott government recognizes that a civil nuclear agreement with India perhaps has more symbolic than practical value. With governments around the world reviewing their nuclear power projects and plans, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, supply is chasing demand, which, in turn, has depressed global uranium prices; also, a number of producing countries are happy to supply the radioactive mineral without asking too many questions. But a deal remains an important device to signal Australia's willingness to walk the talk on closer ties with India. Bishop acknowledged as much when she said: "There is already a growing convergence on the strategic partnership front. The nuclear agreement is part of that." Its interest in broadening the theatre of engagement is apparent from its growing emphasis on 'Indo-Pacific' instead of 'Asia Pacific' and its attempts to rejuvenate the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Said Varghese, who was earlier high commissioner to New Delhi, "We are seeing an unparalleled shift in economic weights. We have to make sure they don't lead to unstable power relationships. We see India playing an increasingly important role. Using the term Indo-Pacific instead of Asia-Pacific locates India in the partnership and recognizes that future challenges will be maritime challenges... There is an overlay of economic interdependence and strategic interests." Every minister, bureaucrat and diplomat this reporter spoke to said they looked forward to the Indian Prime Minister's presence at the G20 summit in Brisbane later this year (there's a huge interest here in who that might be); it would be the first PM-level visit to Australia since Rajiv Gandhi's quarter of a century ago. Equally, they are keen to see Abbott make a trip to India after elections. Said a senior government official, "Abbott spent a couple of months in India when he was young. He's quite taken up with your country." Australia seeks to draw India into tighter embrace with nuclear deal - The Times of India ****************************************************************** This indicates the urgency and resolve in which Australia has jettisoned the last Govt's coy attitude towards nuclear supply to India. There is no doubt that China's aggressive forays into the Pacific and off the coast of Australia has nudged to review Australia's security arrangements and overview in the Indian Ocean - Pacific zone, and it is to her advantage to chalk out a closer relations with like-minded countries like India. Japan's initiative towards a stronger relations with India is indicative that there seems to be a serious strategic convergence of aim of the Asian countries that is aimed to foster better economic and military understanding amongst each other.