Published on Saturday December 03 2011 (AEST)
WE should be thankful for small mercies. Before delivering a triumph to Julia Gillard on selling uranium to India, Labor's national conference this weekend is having a debate on the issue.
Source: The Australia
That will be a change because so far we've heard little more than applause for the Prime Minister's announcement three weeks ago that she would seek to change party policy to allow sales to a country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
She says it is time to modernise the party platform. Those who agree present the change as little more than tidying up a diplomatic anomaly.
There is a case for a change in policy, including the contribution nuclear power can make to reducing India's carbon emissions, the practical reality that other countries are willing to sell uranium to India and that we already sell to countries like China and Russia.
But there is more to it than that.
"I am horrified that the media have not explained the enormity of this proposal," says Ron Walker, a former diplomat.
As a head of the nuclear division in the Department of Foreign Affairs in the 1990s and chairman of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1993, his views are worth considering.
No anti-nuke activist, he subscribes to the policy first adopted by the Fraser government: that we should use our position as a major uranium supplier to demand strict safeguards against nuclear non-proliferation.
Leaving aside its surreptitious development of the nuclear bomb, India has been presented as the model nuclear citizen. Unlike China, Russia and Pakistan, it has not exported its nuclear weapons technology and expertise, at least on any significant scale.
Therefore, so the argument goes, India deserves to be made the exception to the rule that we do not sell uranium to countries that do not sign the NPT.
Walker thinks this is a dangerous idea that risks unravelling the whole international non-proliferation edifice -- one that, despite its failings, he says has discouraged a host of countries, including Australia, Canada, Sweden, Brazil and Argentina, not to pursue plans to develop nuclear weapons.
He also argues that India is far from blameless. Unlike other major powers, it still is producing fissile material to make bombs, has failed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty and refused to make any concrete commitment to disarmament.
"India's rejection of multilateral commitments on non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament is at least as contemptuous of the concerns of all other countries as India claims those countries are of its security concerns," Walker wrote in a recent Lowy Institute blog.
"If it were willing to accept commitments similar to those undertaken by NPT countries, this could easily be negotiated."
Walker tells Inquirer that the idea of "special mates' rates" for India is the start of a slippery slope. "Once you start making special rules for your mates, are we then going to say that Israel (also outside the NPT) isn't a mate? How could we be harder on Japan and South Korea if they acquired nuclear weapons?"
It is a view echoed in 2006 by Alexander Downer when he was foreign minister: "The problem is, if you start to make an exception for India then it raises questions, of course, about Pakistan, and then it raises questions about Israel. You'd have to be pretty persuasive in not extending the same privilege to Pakistan and Israel."
Then there is the risk of a new arms race. "No one can be certain that China will not follow the US example (of becoming a nuclear supplier to India), sell more nuclear material to Pakistan and set itself up as the sole arbiter of whether doing so is legitimate and responsible," Walker argued in an earlier Lowy Institute paper. "Or that Russia or Namibia won't start supplying Iran on a similar basis."
Kevin Rudd as opposition leader recognised the dangers in 2006, when he said: "The consequences of the collapse of the (NPT) regime for Australia are acute, including the outbreak of regional nuclear arms races in South Asia, Northeast Asia and possibly even Southeast Asia."
The US has extracted concessions from India in return for selling it nuclear fuel, equipment and technology. The argument is that this will bring India into the international fold of responsible nuclear citizens. But it still has some distance to go. India has promised to maintain a moratorium on nuclear tests, but will not go the whole way and sign the test ban treaty.
It will work with the US on an international treaty to stop the production of fissile material, but not stop doing so itself just yet. It has promised not to transfer enrichment and reprocessing technology to countries that do not have it -- an issue on which it has a better record than others.
Gillard says Australia will require strict adherence to IAEA rules, as well as "strong bilateral undertakings and transparency measures that will provide assurances our uranium will only be used for peaceful purposes".
But, as former Defence Department secretary Paul Barratt has pointed out, the Prime Minister has indulged her penchant for making announcements first and negotiating second, thus weakening her bargaining power. If India baulks at some of the conditions Australia places on uranium sales, what are the chances Gillard will reverse her reversal of policy?
In any case, Walker argues that a bilateral agreement is not enough and that it is the multilateral system that provides the real protection. Rather than backtracking on international commitments, Australia should be looking with other countries to bring India, Israel and Pakistan under the international umbrella.
"The aim is to put multilateral meat on the bare bones of India's new willingness to accept the responsibilities of a nuclear-armed state that is supportive of non-proliferation," Walker writes in his Lowy paper.
Gillard has responded to the urgings of the Obama administration, tying us into America's broader strategy of India as a counterweight to China. Whether this is in Australia's interests, particularly if it develops into an anti-Chinese containment strategy, is another issue worth debating.
Selling uranium to India may be realpolitik. But it is a decision we should make with eyes wide open and without pretending there are no consequences.