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).
India’s stance was based on principle: the NPT is the last vestige of apartheid in the international system, granting as it does to five countries the right to be nuclear-weapons states while denying the same right to others. If nuclear weapons are evil – and India agrees with Australia that they are – then no one should have them. What is the moral, ethical, or legal basis for suggesting that some can and others cannot? What virtue do the “official” nuclear powers possess that democratic India lacks?
A long-time advocate of global nuclear disarmament, India’s position on the NPT enjoys near-consensus backing within the country. If everyone disarms, India will gladly do so, too. The issue is, above all, one of strategic common sense: China, which went to war with India in 1962, has nuclear weapons pointed at it, making it irresponsible to sign a treaty that would disarm India unilaterally.
Moreover, unlike Iran and North Korea, which signed the NPT and then violated its provisions through clandestine nuclear-weapons programs, India has breached no international obligation, openly pursued its own nuclear development, and has a clean record on proliferation: it has never exported its technology or leaked a nuclear secret. Its nuclear program is strictly in civilian hands. And its nuclear doctrine rests on deterrence, backed by a credible retaliatory threat, rather than a destabilizing first-strike capacity, which India has not developed even against a superior potential adversary like China.
India does not dispute that the risk of nuclear conflict over the next 20 years has increased with the potential emergence of new nuclear-weapon states and the threat that terrorist groups could acquire nuclear materials. Pakistan’s willingness to allow its territory to be used for attacks against India, like the assault on Mumbai in November 2008, inevitably carries the risk of sparking a larger conflagration, and its refusal to sign a “no first-strike” agreement with India is a serious cause for concern. There are also genuine questions regarding the ability of a state like Pakistan to control and secure its nuclear arsenal in the event of internal disruption.
This helps explain why Singh has made such an extraordinary effort to sustain dialogue with Pakistan – and why India remains a strong proponent of universal nuclear disarmament. India’s approach is based on the belief that non-proliferation cannot be an end in itself; rather, it must be linked to nuclear disarmament in a mutually reinforcing process. Effective disarmament must enhance the security of all states – not, as the NPT ensures, merely that of a few.
India set out its goals regarding nuclear disarmament as far back as June 1988, when then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi presented to the United Nations an Action Plan for ushering in a nuclear-weapons-free world. He argued that the “alternative to co-existence is co-destruction.” Even today, India is perhaps the only nuclear-weapons state ready and willing to negotiate a treaty leading to global, non-discriminatory, and verifiable elimination of these deadly armaments.
So Australia’s refusal to emulate the United States in recognizing that India merits an exception on nuclear supplies rankles Indians. In fact, India has all the uranium it currently needs from other suppliers; the issue is one of principle. Just four years ago, India, Australia, and the US participated in joint military and naval exercises, together with Japan and Singapore. It is safe to assume that Australia will need to rethink its position on uranium exports before anything like that happens again.
Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and UN Under-Secretary General, is a member of India’s parliament and the author of a dozen books, including India from Midnight to the Millennium and Nehru: the Invention of India.