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Nothing gained by treating India as an outlaw

The Age, 15 December 2011

IT IS possible to be just as passionate as Malcolm Fraser about nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament without sharing his alarm about the consequences of the Gillard government now opening the way for uranium sales to India.

Lying behind the Australian decision is a key development that Mr Fraser does not address: the agreement by the US during the Bush administration, subsequently endorsed by the broad-based international Nuclear Suppliers Group, to supply nuclear material and technology to India without any serious arms control concessions being sought in return. There was no demand, for example, that India sign and ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty; nor that it commit to a voluntary moratorium, pending treaty negotiation, on the production of further fissile material for weapons purposes; nor that it even consider capping its nuclear arsenal at the present level.

While it would have been very difficult, given domestic Indian political realities, to gain concessions of this magnitude, at least there was then some serious capacity to apply pressure, which has now been lost. For this reason, I have been strongly critical, as was the Australia-Japan international commission I co-chaired, of the US-India deal. But it is Quixotic to think that Australia, by itself, could now apply leverage that the US and the rest of the international community have abandoned. With Canada and Kazakhstan able and now willing to supply as much uranium as India is ever likely to want, Australia just doesn't have the market power to set supply conditions that India is not prepared to accept.

What Mr Fraser does focus on is the traditional argument that no uranium or nuclear technology should be sold to India, or any other non-member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), unless it agrees to join that treaty. At the very least, he says, and many will agree, Australia should hold the line on this principle.

The trouble is that this, again, has no real-world traction: there is no chance of India, now that it has nuclear weapons, joining the NPT other than as a nuclear weapons state, but equally no chance of it being accepted other than as a non-weapons state. The only realistic way forward with India - and the other two elephants outside the NPT: Pakistan and Israel - is to apply every possible form of diplomatic persuasion to get them to sign up to a series of parallel non-proliferation and disarmament disciplines of the kind that most NPT members have themselves embraced, including in relation to nuclear testing and fissile material production. Treating these countries not as outlaws, but as potential allies in the larger cause, is the approach recommended by the Australia-Japan Commission.

Having access to Australian uranium for civil power purposes will not in itself make it easier for India to add to its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Quite apart from the stockpile of fissile material it no doubt already possesses, India has domestic uranium sufficient for any future nuclear weapons it may choose to build. And any shortfall in its domestic energy needs can be made up either by nuclear power reactors supplied by others - or conventional power stations. If the substitution argument is as compelling as Mr Fraser would have it, then he should be arguing for a ban on the sale to India not just of our uranium but our steaming coal as well.

The bottom line is that there is no disarmament or non-proliferation objective that will be advanced by Australia maintaining its ban, and no such objective that will be prejudiced by abandoning it. There was a point to the ban so long as it was being universally applied, but that pass has now been sold by the US-India deal. In the absence of any policy gains, it is not unreasonable for Australia to act now to cut its losses in a bilateral relationship that is going to matter hugely to us, both economically and strategically, in the decades ahead.


Note: This responds to the article by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser Why Gillard’s uranium-to-India policy is dangerously wrong published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald on 12 December 2011. As submitted, but not published, my piece contained the following additional paragraph addressing concerns about the legality of any Australian uranium sales under the Raratonga Treaty: The argument that any Australian uranium sales would be in breach of the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty is not likely to make much headway in court. On a strict interpretation of the text (which refers on the face of it only to NPT members) India is not covered; and on a less literal interpretation it would still have to be regarded – with all its weapons– as a ‘non-nuclear weapon state’, which is no less absurd than saying it is simply outside the scope of the treaty as written.


Link to original article in The Age