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INDIA/AUSTRALIA: Sticking to Uranium Export Ban – For Now

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Sep 19 2008 (IPS) - The Rudd government has reiterated its refusal to sell uranium to countries which have not signed up to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), such as India, despite supporting the decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to back the United States-India nuclear cooperation agreement.

"I welcome very much the decision of the Nuclear Suppliers Group over the weekend to effectively authorise the India-United States civil nuclear agreement," said Australia’s foreign minister Stephen Smith at a press conference in Perth earlier this month.

The 45-member NSG – of which Australia is part – granted a waiver to India on Sep.6, opening the way for the world’s largest democracy to import nuclear fuel and technology from the U.S. when and if the U.S. Congress accedes to the deal.

But while the nuclear agreement has yet to be implemented – the Bush administration is keen for a quick approval by Congress before U.S. lawmakers break to prepare for the upcoming elections.

Media reports have trumpeted separate developments within the NSG – whereby suppliers are purportedly coming ever-closer to reaching a consensus on banning high-end technologies to nations that are not signatories to the NPT – the Rudd government has maintained its refusal to make uranium available to India.

"Our long-standing policy position is that we only export uranium to a country that is party to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty," said Smith.

Australia is a major player when it comes to uranium, holding an estimated 40 percent of the world’s reserves.

Although Canberra’s position may appear at first glance to be somewhat contradictory – the government also backed the deal in the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – a leading analyst says that the significance of the U.S.-India deal goes beyond nuclear trade.

"The American deal with India, the ‘123’ agreement, is really more about welcoming India as a great power and America’s recognition of India as a great power than it is about the substance of the agreement," says Dr Robert Ayson, director of studies in the strategy and defence program at the Australian National University.

"The fact that Australia did not oppose the waiver that the Nuclear Suppliers Group gave to India can be interpreted as a way of the Rudd government supporting America’s attempt to welcome India into the realm of great powers," he adds.

The government has also noted that the agreement is not only about trade.

Stephen Smith told reporters that while "large slabs of India’s civil nuclear industry now come under the oversight of the international regulator, the IAEA," the Rudd government is aware of the strategic importance of the deal.

"I said from day one that Australia understood the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement, both from a strategic point to India and the United States, but also from a non-proliferation point of view," said Smith.

Earlier this year, the current Labor government upheld a pledge it made in the run-up to the Nov. 2007 general election to abandon a deal struck by the former Howard government to supply uranium to India, albeit under certain conditions.

Ayson told IPS that despite the Rudd government reneging on the deal made by its predecessor, it still "can have its cake and eat it too."

He argues that by supporting Australia’s previously long-held policy of selling uranium only to those countries that are signatories to the NPT – a policy from which the government of former prime minister John Howard departed – "Mr Rudd can stay true to the principles of his party."

At the same time, the government’s backing of the India-U.S. agreement demonstrates support for India as it becomes a bigger player on the world stage, says Ayson. But it also shows support for the U.S. in its role as a conduit, helping to bring an emerging India to the fore.

"One of the reasons why the Americans want to do that is to balance China," he says.

However, Ayson acknowledges that Australia’s position regarding uranium sales to India could impact the relationship between the two nations, the development of which "has not always been easy to get sustained progress on," he says.

"If it is a permanent ‘no’…it will affect the relationship that Australia has with India," argues Ayson.

Although the Rudd government’s position on uranium exports appears to remain unambiguous – at least for now – there continues to be ruminations here as to whether India may yet receive Australian uranium.

Senator Scott Ludlam of the Australian Greens – a minor party which holds five of the 76 seats in the Senate – has slammed Australia’s backing of the deal and said that India will be able to access Australian uranium via a third party.

"The Rudd government has tried to tell the public that Australia won’t sell uranium to India but under the terms of the deal, which frees up India’s access to nuclear technology and materials, Australia won’t need to sell uranium directly to India. Our uranium can simply be traded on to India," said Ludlam.

But while a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) spokesman told IPS that such trade could only take place if Australia consented to the deal, there does appears to have been a precedent set.

"Australia doesn’t sell uranium to Taiwan directly because of Australia’s one-China policy, but Australian uranium goes to Taiwan via the United States," says Ayson.

"Australia has arrangements with the United States that allows that," he adds.

However, given the recent push by Australia for renewed efforts against nuclear proliferation – Rudd announced in June the formation of the International Commission on Nuclear non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which Australia will co-chair alongside Japan – a similar deal for India may be deemed as undermining such efforts.

Ayson also has doubts as to whether Australia’s position on selling uranium to India directly will remain steadfast.

"My sense is that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that some time over the medium to long-term, that approach may change," he told IPS.

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