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Reader riposte: Uranium and the India relationship

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This post is part of the Selling Australian uranium to India debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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18 November 2011 11:23


This post is part of the Selling Australian uranium to India debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

David Brewster responds to Richard Broinowski:

I'm not sure that Rory Medcalf suggested that the sale of Australian uranium to India is a panacea to the bilateral relationship — clearly it is not. However, the policy is a symbolic roadblock to improvements in the relationship, and its removal will hopefully provide some space for the relationship to grow.

There is little doubt that Kevin Rudd's reversal of John Howard's announced decision in 2007 to export uranium to India has come to be seen by some in New Delhi as representing all that is wrong with Australian policy: hypocritical, inconsistent and failing to pay regard to India as a friend or as a partner. 

Why does Australia say it is OK for other states to export uranium to India, but not Australia? Why does Australia export uranium to dictatorships which are known nuclear proliferators and refuse to do so to a democracy with an impeccable proliferation record? Is Australia really demanding that India disarm in the face of nuclear-armed Pakistan and China? If so, then why then does Australia continue to shelter under the US nuclear umbrella? If you don't trust us with uranium, how can you trust us to be a security partner? There are no answers to these questions that one could give with a straight face.

Neither do Richard Broinowski's arguments in favour of the current policy cut the mustard. Yes, we know that uranium is a fungible commodity that can also be used to make bombs. But we also know that India can buy as much of it as it wants elsewhere. India has uranium supply relationships with Russia, Kazakhstan, Gabon and Canada, among others. In brief, India is not going to run short of uranium.

Neither does the pretence that India must join the NPT before it can join the nuclear club withstand scrutiny. Australia said it was OK for anyone in the world to supply of uranium and nuclear technology to India when we approved a special exemption for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008. We cannot pretend otherwise.

In short, the policy is an embarrassment. It should be taken out the back and shot.

However, removing an embarrassing symbol is not the same as building a relationship. Richard Broinowski makes some valid points about poor relations and missed opportunities that have plagued the India-Australia relationship for some 60 years. Like Broinowski, I suspect that there is a lot more to it than just bumbling leaders or Cold War politics. 

Among some in New Delhi (and not just old Nehruvians) there is a deep disdain for Australia, whether it be for historical, cultural or ideological reasons. Australia has long been regarded as the inheritor of the sins of the British, a branch office of the United States and (somewhat bizarrely, in my view) as having a particular prejudice against India. The extreme reaction to the Indian student issue was not just a product of a nationalistic Indian media — it drew from a rich foundation of negative perceptions about Australia.

But there is an even more significant factor that inhibits a close security relationship between India and Australia. New Delhi is ignoring us not just because our uranium policy makes it easy to ignore us, nor because some do not like what Australia represents. New Delhi is ignoring us because they do not (yet) see how we can add to India's security, whether it be in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere. Ask someone in the Indian security community about what role Australia could play in India's security and you'll generally get a puzzled response. That is the question we need to think about if we want to become real strategic partners.

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