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Back to the future? Australia’s re-newed relationship with India October 26, 2012

Posted by nishankmotwani in : By contributor, India, Weigold, Auriol , trackback

Auriol Weigold

Returning to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s policy on uranium exports – to sell to India despite its standing outside the NPT as it still does, emphasises the years lost in negotiating and developing the required agreements and safe-guards, a process yet to commence following Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s brief visit to India in mid-October.

BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam site which contains the largest deposit of uranium on the planet

Uranium sales to India were taken off the bilateral table when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd dropped what has been aptly described as ‘a bomb’ over uranium exports to India, setting the Australia-India relationship back – and further back, following the attacks on Indian students in Australia. Rudd had declared when elected that India would be placed at the forefront of Australia’s international partnerships – a statement echoed by Gillard who also aims to progress Rudd’s pursuit of a strategic partnership with India.  This aim, together with some gains made over the period since the Rudd- Singh Joint Statement in November 2009, and future potential for the ‘partnership’, were announced during the two Prime Ministers’ Joint Statement made on 17 October in New Delhi. Almost two years had elapsed and this time there is substantial hope of success in settling the bilateral relationship on an upward trend. A period of stability in the political relationship will be counter to the trend of on-again, off-again relations, characterised by periods of disagreement and neglect, an outcome of years of foreign policy differences.

In changing Labor Party policy on uranium sales in December 2011, Australia has become a player on a crowded stage, among a host of other nations who have entered into uranium supplies and nuclear commerce deals with India, and pursue them rigorously. Recent examples include discussion of Russian nuclear commerce in Delhi a few days before Gillard’s arrival, and on 11 October, a week prior to her arrival, a keynote address was delivered at the 2nd Indo-U.S Nuclear Energy Safety Summit held in Mumbai, by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Geoffrey Pyatt.

It was an important statement that flagged achievements Australia now aspires to. In this crowded field of international interest in India’s nuclear energy future, his observation that it was hard to believe that more than seven years had elapsed since the joint statement by Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and George Bush on their shared vision for cooperation on civilian nuclear energy, signals the distance to be travelled by new players. A long journey for the United States that may well be replicated in Australia’s establishment of suitable safeguards for its uranium supplies.

The path to the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement was, at times, an obstacle course, a key difficulty being their differences over the reprocessing of US-originated spent nuclear fuel, and contentious parts of the 123 Agreement that had ground on.

Pyatt went on to say to say that “our civil-nuclear cooperation was founded not only on the desire to move our strategic partnership forward … but on the premise that India needs nuclear power to sustain its rapidly growing economy in a safe, clean, and cost-effective manner”. A fine statement, but is it one the Australian Government could make convincingly to its domestic audience with its broad based resistance to the use of nuclear energy at home?

As a cautionary but related note – Australia’s Indian Ocean and South Pacific interests are potentially not in accord on nuclear issues. Professor Don Rothwell, an international law expert, in an interview on Asia Pacific in the week prior to Gillard’s state visit to India, raised the possibility that under the terms of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga)  signed in 1985 by Australia and subsequently ratified, Australia has an “obligation to ensure that its sale of uranium mined from within Australia is dealt with consistently with the provisions of the Treaty”. As Rothwell argues, there would be an expectation that any member country would sell uranium only to signatories to the NPT.

How should the Australian Government view the Treaty – a Labor Government initiative signed during Hawke’s period as Prime Minister – as a potentially troublesome issue in terms of the commitment to India that may make the years of safe-guards negotiations ahead look like plain sailing? Or an issue to be challenged by Australian pro- and anti- uranium sales lobbyists? Or an issue addressed with the Treaty signatories before the Gillard change of policy on uranium sales to India 11 months ago? Achieving the approval of the South Pacific signatories to the Treaty in advance would have been a sound move – assuring Australia’s move back to the future on uranium sales to India.

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