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NSG policy will reveal Rudd's true nuclear colours

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COMMENTS

29 January 2008 08:16

Guest blogger: Henry Sokolski (pictured), Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the US Department of Defense from 1989 to 1993 and now executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Henry has written a longer post on this subject for the Far Eastern Economic Review's blog, FEER Forum.

Kevin Rudd has lived up to his campaign pledge to reverse John Howard's decision to sell Australian uranium ore to India. The jury, however, is still out on whether Rudd will uphold the arguments he made to justify this decision or, as some cynics predict, cave to pressures from the Bush Administration to back an international rule that would actively encourage other countries to sell uranium to India. If he does make this concession when he visits Washington early this year, both Mr Rudd's foreign policy credibility and that of Australia will take more than a few hits.

Last year, Howard pledged to sell New Delhi Australian uranium and so demonstrated fidelity with the Bush Administration's own efforts to reverse a ban on nuclear sales to India, a country that refuses to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or to open all of its nuclear sites to international inspections. Mr Howard's announcement was something of a legal hot potato: it actually constituted a renunciation of an Australian commitment under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty of 1985 not to make sales of controlled nuclear goods to countries that refused to open all of their nuclear facilities to international inspections. It also flew in the face of Australia's commitment as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG, an international nuclear supplier export control consortium) not to make such sales.

What saved Mr Howard was that he conditioned any Australian sales to India fulfilling all of the steps necessary to finalize America's nuclear cooperation agreement — something the Indians have still yet to do. Nor did Mr Howard's announcement do anything to boost the price or demand for Australian uranium. The international market for uranium ore, after all, is fungible. Whether or not Australia sells its ore directly to India hardly affects Australia's uranium export revenues, since Australia will always sell uranium to other countries and because other suppliers, once they are cleared by the NSG to do so, could sell New Delhi uranium in Australia's place. World demand for uranium, not what any single government says about it willingness to sell to another specific government, determines the ore's price and demand.

As such, Mr Howard's announcement was mostly a political statement that lent support to the Bush Administration's desire to overturn decades of nuclear nonproliferation policy and to appease India's desire to do the same. Mr Rudd understood all of this and took strong exception to Mr Howard's announcement, rightly arguing that it flew in the face of established Australian and international nuclear nonproliferation policy. Following through, Mr Rudd recently reversed Mr Howard's declaration.

Now comes the rub. Immediately after Prime Minister Rudd made his announcement, his newly appointed minister for foreign affairs, Stephen Smith, made it clear that Australia might nonetheless support US and Indian efforts to get the NSG to authorize sales of uranium and other nuclear controlled goods to India by countries other than Australia.

If Prime Minister Rudd takes this course, though, he will surely have difficulty explaining himself. Australian journalists are already asking his government how it can simultaneously back Mr Rudd's reversal and India's and the Bush Administration's efforts at the NSG without simply looking hypocritical. In this they have a point. If Prime Minister Rudd does cave to pressure from the Bush Administration to take this course, he will be in no position to criticize either Howard or Bush for their lack of principle or zeal concerning nuclear nonproliferation. Mr Rudd, of course, has yet to decide which course to take. More than a few — not just in Australia, but around the world — will be watching.

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