Global insider: Australia seeks assurances from India in advance of nuclear trade deal
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Global insider: Australia seeks assurances from India in advance of nuclear trade deal

In this interview with World Politics Review, Rory Medcalf explores the significance of and obstacles to achieving a nuclear trade deal between Australia and India.

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Global insider: Australia seeks assurances from India in advance of nuclear trade deal

World Politics Review

1 October 2013


India is seeking to conclude a nuclear trade deal with Australia’s new government by the end of the year. In an email interview, Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute and associate director of the Australia India Institute, explained what’s at stake in their negotiations.

WPR: What is at stake in the nuclear trade negotiations between India and Australia?
Rory Medcalf: These are safeguards talks aimed at finalizing an agreement to ensure that any Australian uranium exported to India will not be diverted to military uses. Uranium is no longer a make or break issue in Australia-India relations, since the Australian government and the opposition Labor Party both now support civilian uranium exports to India in principle. There was a long phase of discrimination against India, including a blanket ban on uranium exports to India from Australia due to India’s non-signature of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but that is now over. So Indians know the barrier of mistrust and discrimination is gone permanently. But exports will not be automatic—first, the two countries have to agree on the details of safeguards, and then of course commercial entities on both sides have to come to business supply arrangements.
WPR: What are the remaining obstacles to a deal?
Medcalf: Australian officials have to be convinced that India’s civil and military nuclear programs are well and truly separated, and that India can give reliable assurances that Australian-origin nuclear material can be accounted for in purely peaceful uses, consistent with India’s agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is no more than Australia demands of other nuclear-armed countries like China or Russia, which already are destinations for Australian uranium exports for civilian energy purposes. This is a reasonable expectation, and should be achievable. India cannot expect Australia to somehow discriminate in its favor in ways that Australia does not do for other nuclear-armed states and NPT members. In any case, there should be no rush or political urgency, as the commercial and developmental imperatives are not especially great right now—India’s nuclear energy sector is growing more slowly than some had anticipated, and it does not need Australian uranium immediately.
WPR: Is Australia's new government likely to bring changes to the country's nonproliferation posture toward India and more generally?
Medcalf: There is unlikely to be dramatic change. There is broad bipartisanship in Australia on nonproliferation and arms control, although the new conservative government is likely to be less crusading on nuclear disarmament than were previous Labor governments.

Areas of expertise: Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific strategic order; India and the Indian Ocean; maritime security; nuclear arms control