Commentary | 28 November 2011

Uranium Debate : Australia’s uranium puzzle: Why China and Russia but not India?

In December 2011, the Australian Labor Party changed its policy platform to allow uranium exports to India, following an intense debate. The Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf had analysed this issue closely over the preceding years, and on the eve of the Labor conference published this paper, challenging the myths and misconceptions and the nature and effect of Australia’s uranium export policies towards major powers such as China, Russia and India.

‘Contrary to the crude assertions of some critics, government decisions about uranium exports are not a simple trade-off between proliferation risk and export earnings.’

  • Rory Medcalf

In December 2011, the Australian Labor Party changed its policy platform to allow uranium exports to India, following an intense debate. The Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf had analysed this issue closely over the preceding years, and on the eve of the Labor conference published this paper, challenging the myths and misconceptions and the nature and effect of Australia’s uranium export policies towards major powers such as China, Russia and India.

‘Contrary to the crude assertions of some critics, government decisions about uranium exports are not a simple trade-off between proliferation risk and export earnings.’

  • Rory Medcalf

Key Findings

  • Australian uranium export policy has never been based on non-proliferation or economic criteria alone.
  • Geopolitics, diplomacy and domestic politics are all important factors.
  • Australian uranium policy decisions on their own will not affect India’s or other countries’ decisions about advancing or abandoning their nuclear weapons programs.

Executive Summary

Policy on Australian uranium exports to major countries such as China, Russia or India is not purely about non-proliferation, nor is it primarily about economics. Instead, the major drivers of Australian uranium exports to China, Russia and – whenever they finally happen – India relate more closely to diplomacy and geopolitics. Canberra recognises real diplomatic value in uranium exports, provided they can be justified as not posing proliferation risks. This in turn may depend upon the conditions of export, not simply a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’ approach to exports. Certainly Canberra has come to see uranium as a way to strengthen those bilateral relationships which offer great value to Australia’s wider national interests. Support for the US alliance is another element in the mix of diplomatic and geopolitical factors behind uranium export decisions, although not necessarily an overriding one. As for domestic opinion, it matters primarily as a function of party politics, and serves more to obstruct potential export arrangements than to initiate them. The Australian government’s decisions whether to export, and what conditions to attach, arise from the churn of all these factors. This suggests that there is a premium on political leadership in bringing about change in uranium export policy.