Much ado about very little

16 October 2012

The sale of Australian uranium to India was only a matter of time; it’s now time to focus on strengthening the two countries' relationship, writes IAN HALL.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to New Delhi was always going to be over-shadowed by the prospect of a deal to sell Australian uranium to India, but it should mark the beginning of the end of a vexed period in Indo-Australian relations.

In the Australian Labor Party (ALP), among the Greens, and in the Canberra foreign policy establishment, which rightly prides itself on a long track record in the area of nuclear non-proliferation, opposition to uranium sales remains strong. But, maintaining the ban was damaging Australian interests.

Australia is one of last major suppliers of nuclear technology and materials to negotiate a deal with India. In 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) gave a waiver to India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to trade in civilian nuclear materials. Among suppliers of nuclear technology, Britain, France, Canada, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States have all concluded agreements or are in the process of making them. Among suppliers of uranium, Canada, Namibia and Kazakhstan have already agreed to sell to India.

Australia’s increasingly lonely stance on nuclear trade with India might have won plaudits from the principled at home, but appeared odd abroad, especially in India itself. First, it seemed inconsistent. Why was Australia refusing to sell to India, a country that has acquired nuclear weapons outside the NPT, but never passed the technology to others, when it was happy to sell to China, a country with a patchy past record on non-proliferation? Second, it seemed mean-spirited, at the very least. India needs power and its needs are growing fast. It is trying to raise hundreds of millions from abject poverty. Why would Australia deny India one means of providing that power?

Finally, and most problematically, it seemed to suggest that some in Australia’s political and intellectual elite do not trust India. Much of the recent commentary on the question of uranium sales has unfortunately reinforced this impression. Australia should not sell, these critics have suggested, because India cannot be trusted not to divert uranium to nuclear weapons or to maintain adequate safety standards at nuclear plants. No safeguards agreement, so this argument goes, can guarantee that these things won’t happen.

Some enthusiasts maintain that the Gillard government’s reversal of the ban on uranium sales will bring about – overnight, as it were – a new, improved relationship between Australia and India. I’m not so sure. The underlying problems in the two countries’ relationship were never about uranium, and, in any case, the uranium issue is not actually that consequential. The NSG waiver has already addressed the international legal issues. Moreover, an Indo-Australian deal on sales will not happen quickly. The sales that may result will likely be small, certainly in terms of the overall value of trade between the two. And, in any case, India’s nuclear industry is hardly a major market, with only 20 existing plants and seven being built, providing less than 10 per cent of its electricity.

The problems in the Indo-Australian relationship are not really about uranium. They are really about trust, and this issue will take longer to negotiate than a nuclear deal. Australians and Indians still see each other as they once were – Australians perceive India as poor, chaotic, and hierarchical; Indians perceive Australians as sometimes prejudiced, impatient, and blunt, not to mention too close to both the Americans and the Chinese. Too few see contemporary Australia and India as what they are today: complicated and fast-changing countries with overlapping and mutually-reinforcing interests.

There is reason to think that this reordering of perceptions is possible, but it will take time and it needs political and diplomatic investment.

Dr Ian Hall is a senior fellow at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and Director of tthe Graduate Studies in International Affairs program. His research interests include international relations theory, the history of international thought, diplomacy, international security and Indian foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter as @DrIanHall.

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