Australia ended its decades’ old ban on exporting uranium to India, opening the world’s largest uranium reserves to New Delhi’s lucrative nuclear market. While the sudden policy shift has been framed as one aimed at improving bilateral ties , it is part of a larger strategic realignment in the Asia-Pacific region being led by the United States.
Initially announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the decision secured approval from the ruling Labor Party in early December. Australia had originally imposed the ban against India in response to New Delhi’s longstanding refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Gillard cited a host of reasons for the policy reversal, including the need to strengthen and expand relations with New Delhi as well as the desire to spur domestic economic growth by creating new markets for uranium exports. She further acknowledged the “change in diplomatic circumstances around the world” surrounding India’s nuclear program, referring to the passage of the landmark US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement in 2008. The wide-ranging deal between Washington and New Delhi effectively granted India de-facto international recognition of its nuclear program and lifted the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group’s (NSG) ban on supplying uranium to the world’s largest democracy. Overturning the ban finally brought Australia in line with those countries already selling uranium to India, eager to help the South Asian giant satisfy its fast growing energy demand.
While each one of these factors certainly influenced Canberra’s decision-making calculus, the reversal can only be properly understood within the context of the Washington’s recent foreign policy “pivot” towards Asia. With a wary eye focused on China, the Obama Administration has embarked on a strategic “refocusing and rebalancing” of its priorities in the Asia-Pacific, reaffirming its steadfast commitment to security and stability in region. A critical component of this realignment features Washington strengthening its network of partnerships and alliances in the Indo-Pacific, a central aim behind Obama’s ten-day tour there in December.
Canberra’s seemingly sudden policy turnaround in reality came after months of talks with officials in Washington who viewed the ban as not only a major barrier to the ability to pursue deeper ties with India and Australia, but also an unnecessary irritant to the larger American strategic vision in the region. Revealingly, Gillard’s announcement came on the eve of Obama’s state visit to Australia where he revealed that the United States would deploy 2,500 marines to the island continent to strengthen alliances in the region. Despite denials by both Washington and Canberra, the two announcements are unmistakably linked.
That the United States exercised considerable influence over Australia to overturn the ban demonstrates that India is likely to feature prominently in Washington’s strategic plans in the region. As the natural and only viable regional counterweight to China, it is unsurprising that India will play a crucial role in anchoring US strategy — even if New Delhi is unlikely take part in any formal security pact that could prompt Chinese fears of possible encirclement. Washington’s tacit role in lifting the ban constitutes a powerful reminder that it remains committed to full implementation of the US-India nuclear deal, belying assertions by observers to the contrary.
Ronak D. Desai practices law in Washington, DC and holds a joint law and public policy degree from Harvard Law School and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.