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Australian uranium to India: Mad or bad?

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COMMENTS

9 September 2008 16:43

To put the choice at its starkest: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is more valuable to Australia than is our relationship with India.

Diplomacy is devoted to avoiding such one-dimensional, zero-sum decisions. The aim is always to straddle and avoid choosing. Yet Foreign Minister Stephen Smith's visit to India this week is going to confront him with the costs involved in a complex set of issues stated in that blunt formula – India versus the NPT. Straddling always carries the risk of close contact with the barbed-wire fence. And having a foot on both sides is the stance Australia has adopted by endorsing the US-India deal in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, while maintaining the NPT-based policy of not selling uranium to India.

The Federal Opposition says the Rudd Government has been 'humiliated into supporting the US-India agreement' and should move on to approve uranium sales. To this claim of humiliation, Greg Sheridan adds the charge of mental instability.

Official Australian policy is that while it supports the deal and will engage in nuclear technology trade with India, it won’t supply uranium to the world’s biggest democracy because New Delhi is not a signatory to the NPT. This contradiction is, of course, madness.

Madness! Why such intemperate language from a chap who, in person, is both charming and cheerful? The answer is that, as a Pooh-Bay of Punditry, Greg knows that a columnist who avoids stating an opinion will suffer abhorrence in the same way nature deals with a vacuum. (I offer the first sentence of my column as a proof of this rule.)

The danger is of lurching beyond strong argument into shrillness — the Pooh-Bay denounces his or her opponents as not merely wrong but as demented. The 'madness' line falls into the shrill category, while underlining the high stakes involved in the relationship with India. Stephen Smith can expect to be on the receiving end of a fair bit of similar Indian bombast during his visit.

So before the verbal storm really gathers strength, let us consider why it will be good policy of the sanest kind for Australia not to rush to change its laws to enable uranium sales to India.

The first point is that India has already gained a lot and given relatively little. Washington clinched an agreement that served its bilateral interests at the cost of serious damage to multilateral structures. One of the biggest criticisms of the US is that Washington bungled the chance to enlist New Delhi in a far more extensive and ambitious project — modernisation of the NPT. America has spent a lot of valuable negotiating coin that cannot be reused.

Australia does not need to offer further rewards to an India that still refuses to join the NPT or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And Australia could ponder for some time before adopting Manmohan Singh’s interpretation that 'India’s decades long isolation from the nuclear mainstream' is over and the world has recognised 'India’s impeccable non-proliferation credentials'. The pureness of those credentials is open to question, and strong arguments can be mounted against punching 'an India sized hole' in the global rules on nuclear trade.

Rory Medcalf has set out in detail how Australia should support the new 'realistic idealist' push for nuclear disarmament. He lists the unusual mix of qualities an activist Australia can draw on: strong Asian diplomacy, a close US alliance, our role as a uranium supplier and the good reputation lingering from previous arms control efforts.

Australia’s interest is in fighting to preserve the NPT, not in helping India knock away more bricks from an already shaky structure. For all the holes in its roof and gaps in the walls, the NPT is immensely valuable for Australia and Asia.

Those who focus on the bilateral gains Australia can get from selling uranium to India are guilty of assuming the permanence of past gains achieved by the NPT. The Treaty has suffered great damage from the nuclear renegades, but it still stands. Imagine what the world would be like if the NPT had not existed. Australia would be in a different world. Our strategic calculus would have been changed by southern hemisphere states such as Argentina and South Africa, which would have stepped over the nuclear weapons threshold. Both countries were racing towards that destination before stepping back to embrace their NPT obligations.

Consider the implications of a parallel political universe where John Gorton served as Prime Minister for more than a decade and pursued his inclination for Australia to get its own Bomb. What if Indonesia during that same era had joined other emerging powers in the rush to get nuclear weapons? Thanks to the NPT and hard-edged super-power politics, John F Kennedy’s nightmare of a 1970s world with 25 nuclear weapons states did not come to pass. It might in the future, though, if the NPT is pushed into irrelevance.

India is going to be an important part of Australia’s future. So is the need to protect and enhance the NPT. In saying no to India on uranium, Canberra could take some pages from the standard playbook used by India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Australia should refuse to concede a single point on grounds of history, principle or pragmatism. And Australia is under no time pressures to change its mind.

Those are tactics well understood in New Delhi.

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