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Photo by Greenpeace.
17 October 2012
Photo by Greenpeace.

As if domestic debate wasn’t enough, any announcement regarding uranium exports to India will make waves around the world, KALMAN A ROBERTSON and CRISPIN ROVERE.

As Julia Gillard discusses the details of a uranium deal with her counterpart in India, one could be forgiven for thinking that the international community as a whole wouldn’t take much notice. After all, several other major suppliers, including Canada, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States already have nuclear supply agreements with India. And Australia already has supply agreements with all five nuclear-weapon states which are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including Russia and China. In any case, this is just uranium ore concentrate; it could not be used in any nuclear activity, peaceful or military, without going through the technically complex processes of conversion and enrichment.

Based on the progress of Australia’s nuclear supply to China and Russia, it is safe to assume that Australia won’t enter the Indian market for at least a couple years, way behind many other suppliers. Even then, any Australian uranium supplied would be confined to India’s safeguarded facilities, where it would be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards that are, in many ways, more intensive and intrusive than those in Russia and China.

Given that so many states are flocking to supply nuclear material and technology to India, it might seem bizarre that Australia would be viewed any differently. Yet unlike any other supplier, Australia is a party to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga). The Treaty of Rarotonga creates a geographical region in which nuclear weapons are banned.

Many Australian and international experts have voiced opposition to the deal arguing that the supply of Australian uranium to India contravenes the Treaty of Rarotonga. This is not the case. Both the NPT and the Treaty of Rarotonga contain provisions prohibiting the supply of uranium to non-nuclear-weapon states unless subject to the safeguards required by the NPT. A number of parties of the NPT already supply India without violating that Treaty. The Treaty of Rarotonga does not establish additional prohibitions in this respect. And yet, given the pervasiveness of the view that Australian supply of uranium to India is illegal, it is sure to impact on international perceptions of Australia’s non-proliferation credentials.

Those calling for India to ratify the NPT prior to the export of Australian uranium fail to understand that this is realistically impossible. The NPT restricts possession of nuclear weapons to the states that tested them prior to 1967. Before India could join the NPT, it would have to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, while sandwiched between two nuclear powers –China and Pakistan. Even if it were possible and desirable to amend the NPT to allow India to join as a nuclear weapon state, this would be blocked by veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council.

Among those possibly aggrieved by uranium exports to India are states that forsook nuclear weapons when they joined the NPT. Many of these states have also struggled to secure supplies of nuclear technology from the developed world for their own peaceful nuclear programs. These states observe the ever expanding acceptance of India as a nuclear power outside of the NPT with dismay, claiming it undermines the bargain: nuclear power so long as you don’t develop nuclear weapons.

In an effort to further the objectives of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, many states have taken the additional step of establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones. Australia’s testing of the legal utility of nuclear-weapon-free zones may not be a welcome development for those who ascribe more legal value to them than actually exists.

In terms of presenting Australia-India nuclear cooperation to the world, the prime ministers of both countries should reiterate and clarify commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Obviously, the nature of the proposed safeguards agreement between Australia and India is central because it forms the core of the rules of supply.It would be particularly helpful if progress toward ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty by India was made a topic of discussion during negotiation of the uranium deal.

The world will be watching Singh and Gillard make an announcement today symbolic of a strengthening relationship between two significant powers in the region. If this relationship ends up promoting nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament then the lessons the world takes as this deal unfolds may well be good ones.

Kalman A Robertson and Crispin Rovere are PhD candidates at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in The Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.


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