What a week in Australian foreign policy.

Two days before President Obama's visit, which will likely mark a pivot to a truly Indo-Pacific strategic vision by Washington and Canberra, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has publicly declared her support for safeguarded uranium exports to India.

These two things are connected – not as some conspiracy (though some on the left will see the timing as suspicious), but rather because it is about time we sent a signal that we recognise an emerging India as a vital and trusted part of a stable Indo-Pacific regional order. To be sure, the eve-of-Obama timing was at least a bit clumsy. It would have been better if the Prime Minister's statement had come earlier. Australia is embracing India strictly for its own reasons, not Washington's.

But in any case, Gillard's move is welcome and overdue. It is high time the Australian Labor Party developed a contemporary policy allowing uranium exports to help India produce much-needed electricity.

I have seen both sides of this issue, first as an arms control diplomat and then as a diplomat on posting in India. In 1998 I was a junior official writing talking points condemning India for its nuclear tests. From 2000-2003 I worked in New Delhi, watching India's foreign and security policy evolution first-hand and trying to improve Australia-India relations after the damage from our failed, moralistic 1998 stance. From 2004 to February 2007 I monitored the changing Asian strategic order from inside Australia's peak intelligence agency.

Since my first opinion piece calling for a change of Labor policy on uranium in April 2007 I have been an open supporter of improved relations with India. And now I try to balance realistic assessments of the Asian nuclear and strategic order with my advocacy of a true strategic partnership with India as part of Australia's wider approach to an era of Chinese, Indian and sustained American power and influence. Part of this work involves close consultations with prominent Indians from across politics, media, diplomacy, business and journalism.

All of this makes me well aware that the question of tempering Australia's activist nuclear diplomacy with its need for better India ties is a tough call needing proper debate. But on balance, Australia's foreign policy, security and economic interests are all served by a change of policy on uranium.

Labor's existing policy overturned Prime Minister John Howard's bold decision in 2007 to begin negotiating uranium exports to India. At that point Australia was poised to be on the leading edge of nuclear engagement with India; instead, the Labor policy reversal ceded some of that ground to the US, Canada, Kazakhstan, Japan, France, Russia and fairly much any other nuclear supplier.

Of course, Labor could and should have gone to the 2007 election with the same policy as Howard – it would have won hands-down anyway – and then four years of delay and frustration in Australia-India relations could have been avoided. Instead, when Labor overturned its restricted 'three mines' policy on uranium mining, the offset for Labor's left was the reaffirmation of the NPT-only export rule, making India a very large and disappointed sacrificial lamb.

The policy of exporting only to countries that have joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty – a treaty that India is literally unable to sign – is unsustainable. The NPT only allows countries that tested the bomb before 1967 to possess nuclear arms, so India would need to surrender its small atomic arsenal before signing. Of course, it cannot do that while China and Pakistan possess nuclear arms.

Yet in other ways, India is a good non-proliferation citizen. Unlike China or Pakistan, it has never helped other countries acquire the bomb. And it has signed up to putting all its new reactors under safeguards for purely civil use. Yet we have been pointlessly telling India 'we do not trust you'. That is a contradictory message at a time when we are trying to engage strategically and economically with India as this century's third-largest economy and the world's biggest democracy. 

Of course we need to apply proper conditions and safeguards to ensure civilian use of our uranium, and if India has a problem with those safeguards then any deal would and should be off. But even then, at least there would be an end to Labor's outdated and discriminatory policy – a refusal even to talk about uranium with India, while we export to China and Russia.

Let the real debate begin.

Photo by Flickr user SiGMan.