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India’s Nuclear Path

NEW DELHI – When the Commonwealth heads of government meet in Australia later this month, one prominent leader is almost certain to be conspicuously absent: India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India is a strong backer of the association of former British colonies (and some new entrants without that shared heritage, notably Mozambique and Rwanda), so no displeasure with the Commonwealth is implied. Instead, rumors in New Delhi suggest that the decision to send a delegation led by India’s ceremonial vice-president, albeit an able former diplomat, might be a not-so-subtle rebuke to the summit’s host, Australia.

On the face of it, it is hard to imagine two countries with less cause for conflict. United by the English language, similar democratic political institutions, and a shared passion for cricket, and divided by no significant issues of contention, India and Australia seem obvious candidates for the sort of benign relationship of which most diplomats dream.

Two years ago, a sensitive area did emerge, when reports of Indian students being brutally attacked in “hate crime” incidents in Melbourne and Sydney inflamed India’s excitable media and threatened to derail the relationship. But this has been dealt with successfully, mainly through adroit diplomacy on both sides and effective preventive policing by Australia. The Commonwealth summit might well have provided an opportunity to celebrate the restoration of bonhomie.

Instead, relations have been strained by the continuing refusal of Australia’s Labour Party government to sell uranium to energy-starved India for its civilian nuclear program. A regular supplier of uranium for China’s extensive nuclear-weapons program (while overlooking its record of facilitating Pakistan’s clandestine weapons development), Australia nonetheless justifies its stance on the grounds of India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).