Want Australian uranium? Join the NPT

Australia may begin exporting uranium to India, but proponents have hijacked what is primarily an arms control debate.

Julia Gillard
In reversal of long-standing policy, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard supports selling uranium to India [EPA]

Melbourne, Australia – This is the second in a two-part essay that discusses the debate currently taking place in Australia concerning the sale of uranium to India, in particular the consideration given to the Labor Party’s longstanding ban on uranium sales to non-state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Part 1 critiqued the federal government’s proposed policy change. Part 2 will briefly examine the immediate response to the policy change in the media and blogosphere.

The Labor Party will vote on whether to change its policy position, thereby exporting uranium to India, at its national conference held in Sydney, December 2-4, 2011.  

As discussed in part one, on November 15 Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed an amendment to her party’s longstanding and non-negotiable position on uranium exports: that recipient states must be members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The immediate response in Australian news media was politically orchestrated and myopically centred on Gillard’s belief that Australia’s economy and job seekers will benefit, and that India requires a modern policy in line with “the international community”. As one critic sees it, “The change has been presented publicly as little more than an administrative matter designed to correct an anomaly in our current export policy”.

 Australian PM backs uranium sales to India

Few commentators appeared committed to seriously debating the uranium exports in the gritty terms of arms control (it is, for example, shirked by political commentators here, here, here, hereherehereherehere … and it is touched on inadequately or incorrectly herehere, and here with a number of articles only touching on the security dimension in these terms: “The Howard government overreacted to India’s nuclear weapons test in 1998” and “Why won’t it abandon [their nuclear weapons]?… [because that would be] rejected by its people”).

One op-ed, written by co-convener of the Australia India Institute’s Perceptions Taskforce, Christopher Kremmer, went so far as to argue that uranium sales “is a mature act that banishes hypocrisy”. In so doing, Kremmer impressed on his reader that advocating uranium sales was a moral act, and thus the way forward was perfectly clear:

“… India needs electricity if it is to bring 400 million people out of poverty. If the Greens have a plan for how it can do this, I’m happy to put them in touch with the relevant ministers in Delhi.”

Since when does a minority party in Australia have to solve a domestic energy issue in India? World politics is rife with the balancing of competing interests and “harms”, so to reduce the debate to absolutist terms is not to sincerely engage with practicalities. This isn’t bananas Australia is selling, after all – uranium is an input into the nuclear cycle. Yet Kremmer seemed impervious: “As things stand, there is only one alternative energy source India can use. Sad but true, it’s coal. If we deny India uranium, it will simply buy more of the black, climate-changing stuff. In the absence of a moral leg to stand on …”

So too does Dr Dennis Jenson, a minister of parliament from the Opposition Liberal Party, who casts the debate in equally definitive terms:

“From an economic and moral perspective there are merits to re-instating [former Prime Minister] John Howard’s policy. Continuing to proffer the merits of a Clean Energy Future, Labor and the Greens can not afford to cross the Prime Minister on this issue.

India needs electricity to liberate some 400 million citizens from poverty. If the Greens have the trillions to build solar farms and wind turbines I’m sure Delhi officials will be on the first carbon neutral plane available to meet with [Greens leader] Brown and his Brigade.”

After courageously fumbling through a detailed discussion of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, Dr Jenson makes the astounding claim that:

“Some of the nuclear weapon states (such as China and Russia) have a highly questionable record when it comes to the sale of nuclear weapon capabilities, or parts of such capabilities to other nations.

This is in stark contrast to India, who, by all accounts, has an exemplary record in this regard, and all other regards associated with the NNPT apart from the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability for its own defence needs.”

Conveniently forgotten is the fact that India currently is the only state in the world to possess nuclear weapons but be formally permitted to carry on civilian nuclear business according to the terms of international agreements such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. As one critic of this sort of analysis rightly put it, “The discrimination is in India’s favour, not against it.”

Perhaps for a reasoned argument one must look to the opinions of international politics experts in the blogosphere!

One of the more prominent bloggers on Australia-India relations in recent times is Rory Medcalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Since at least 2007 Medcalf has been of the view that India needs uranium in order to assist in what is the “largest experiment in peaceful, democratic development in history”. For India, we are told, atomic energy is necessary in order to enable socio-economic development, the alleviation of deprivation and poverty brought about by lack of access to power in general, and a responsible contribution to combatting global climate change.

With the news that Gillard is prepared to do an about-face on longstanding Labor policy on November 15, Medcalf continually asserted that, “Yet in other ways, India is a good non-proliferation citizen”.

However, it is a grave error to cite India’s nuclear weapons record – which is sub-optimal, not “exemplary”, as is often recycled – as evidence in support of a policy change that is predominately driven by political, commercial and diplomatic pressures.

Indeed, according to the Australia and Japan-led International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament report in 2009:

“10.5… One criticism – frequently voiced since the India agreement – is that [Nuclear Suppliers Group] members may be driven by commercial incentives to be less rigorous in their approach to countries not applying comprehensive safeguards or not party to the NPT.”

“10.7 The main substantive problem with the deal is that it removed all non-proliferation barriers to nuclear trade with India in return for very few significant non-proliferation and disarmament commitments by it. The view was taken that partial controls – with civilian facilities safeguarded – were better than none.”

Two years after these dire warnings – incidentally by an International Commission co-chaired by our former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and instigated by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – Gillard also appears to be primarily “driven by commercial incentives” and a perceived diplomatic dividend.

In this way, Medcalf’s arguments for uranium sales are easily problematised, for his statements are predominately focused on Australian national interests – he speaks of “foreign policy, security and economic interests” being “better served” by exporting uranium to India – while at the same time softening the effects on Australia’s security interests, and completely ignoring any longer-term and global effects of such uranium deals on arms control and international security.

It is, however, not appropriate to quarantine the terms of the discussion to near-term national interests when the issue in question has implications for state strategy and international security. To be fair, Medcalf appears momentarily to acknowledge this gaping hole in the uranium sales pitch, briefly tipping his hat to the necessary balancing of competing norms and interests: “All of this makes me well aware that the question of tempering Australia’s activist nuclear diplomacy with its need for better India ties is a tough call needing proper debate”.

However, Medcalf’s generally laissez-faire view of the world’s peak nuclear regime appears rife at the Lowy Institute. Indeed, his colleague, assistant editor Andrew Carr, makes the rather dubious call for Australia to adopt “new thinking and new approaches” to uranium export controls.

Carr’s central argument is to highlight how Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s “principled” rejection of India’s advances, based on it being outside of the international nonproliferation regime, “artfully backfires” because of his willingness to sell uranium to states with serious human rights concerns. But Carr draws this conclusion by conjoining two sections of Ludlam’s press release entirely out of context.

What in fact Senator Ludlam had reasoned was:

“The Government has been prepared to cut uranium deals with Russia, an authoritarian state which is assisting Iran’s nuclear program, and the United Arab Emirates, a dictatorship with a disturbing human rights record; Will they expand their rogue’s gallery of customers to include a country with a nuclear arsenal which has refused to sign the NPT?”

As is common among analysts of international politics in Australia, Carr seems too willing to dismiss all opponents of uranium sales as being morally bankrupt.

The Greens do, after all, have a well-known policy position on uranium – of which Senator Ludlam happens to be the party’s spokesperson – which clearly states that: “The Australian Greens will … prohibit the exploration for, and mining and export of, uranium”.

Another colleague at the Lowy, Martine Letts has the temerity to suggest she will present a mechanism by which uranium can be sold to India “responsibly” based on outrageous assertion that:

“… refusing to export uranium to India will neither prevent India from modernising its nuclear forces, nor prevent nuclear proliferation in South Asia. Plenty of countries are prepared to sell uranium to India, and the AQ Khan network, China and the DPRK have contributed to proliferation in Asia in a way which countries like Australia have been powerless to influence. To the extent that India’s exclusion from official nuclear trade has had an impact, it has diverted resources away from its domestic power program. So far, India has put its military program first.”

That is, Letts impresses upon us, the nuclear regime will be strengthened by Australia exporting uranium to India, not diminished.

Yet I have no confidence in the level of sophistication members of the Lowy such as Letts then go on to theorise possible export control measures and the implications of India’s nuclear weapons acquisition in the first place:

“For historical reasons India fails to qualify as an officially recognised nuclear weapon state under the NPT, though it is obviously a nuclear weapon state in practical terms. Any agreement with India will therefore be modelled on the types we have with China and Russia.”

Remembering arms control imperatives

Seemingly the grand irony of India using cooperation on “civil” nuclear technology outside of the NPT in the 1970s, and then revealing its nuclear weapons capability to the world decades later – over and over – is lost on the proponents of Gillard’s proposed uranium sales.

Indeed, when proponents refer to “the international community” in an attempt to bolster arguments to relax uranium export controls for India, it may be useful to remember that country tested its nuclear devices all the while “the international community” negotiated the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. India, as well as Pakistan, defiantly remains outside of that second cornerstone international nuclear arms control agreement, so suggestions that bilateral alternatives are safe and reasoned are antithetical to historical reality.

As the United States (and indeed Japan) are finding, Indian cooperation following civilian nuclear agreements is not always forthcoming, and Indian uranium acquisitions of any kind are likely to pique the interest of national security analysts within Pakistan and China. International security dynamics would be immeasurably altered.

In brief, contrary to uranium sales advocates, I believe what Senator Ludlam seemed to suggest was right: Australia’s priority must be nuclear security not sales, and that all sales – not just those earmarked to go to India – must be subject to the stringent controls of the NPT if Australia is to continue to help drive global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Thankfully, a small number of commentators and experts have begun chiming in with similarly critical views of the domestic debate. For instance, speaking from the US, Ploughshares president Joe Cirincione highlighted how the US-India civilian nuclear deal – which is said to have influenced Gillard’s change in policy position – “encouraged India to expand nuclear weapons programme” and “fuelled the arms race”.

Indeed, some critics have gone so far as to show how uranium exports to India may fall short of Australia’s commitments under international law. The Rarotonga Treaty of 1985 created a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific, that essentially requires India to fulfil full-scope safeguards as outlined in Article III – standards, according to the IAEA, that India presently does not meet.

But when Labor Senator Gavin Marshall argued that “Australia must decide whether to stand with the vast majority of nations in supporting the principle of nuclear disarmament, or to stand with those who continue to undermine it”, the response was strong and dismissive. For instance, Liberal counterpart David Feeney replied that Marshall’s argument is economically, diplomatically and politically “hypocritical”, and that he must find a more “powerful justification to persist with a policy that restricts trade and reduces our export income”. Unsurprisingly, for Feeney, that “justification” is somewhat moral:

“There is also an environmental issue at stake. As a supporter of global action on climate change, I don’t want India burning ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuels to provide the power its billion people and rapidly expanding industrial economy urgently need. Nuclear energy is a much cleaner source of power than burning coal, which is India’s only alternative”.

Such debates are part of Australian, and indeed political, culture. Yet it’s not the strength or frequency of criticism of the existing policy that is troubling to me, but the flawed arms control logic within, and moral grandstanding of, their arguments.

For if this sort of willing delusion prevails, and uranium sales to India go ahead, then undoubtedly this will be a pivotal moment when nuclear arms control returns to those tense and cold days from which, this time, we may never turn back.

NAJ Taylor is a doctoral candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, and author of This Blog Harms 

Follow NAJ Taylor on Twitter: @najtaylor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.