Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:27 | SYDNEY

Indian nuclear cooperation: What will Australia do?

4 December 2007 10:25

Guest blogger: Henry Sokolski (below), Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the US Department of Defense from 1989 to 1993 and now executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a nonprofit research center in Washington, DC.

How should nuclear fuel-supplying states such as Australia and the US cooperate with India on its nuclear power programs? Until last month, the answer seemed pretty clear: Washington and Canberra  were committed to selling India any nuclear technology or commodity so long as it was for 'peaceful' purposes.

The US and India signed an agreement in August clearing the way for such cooperation so long as New Delhi opened some of its power reactors to international inspections. The only other requirement was that all of the members of an international nuclear association known as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG, of which the US and Australia are members), had to agree to make an exception for India to accommodate such trade.

Currently, the NSG prohibits exports of controlled nuclear goods, including reactors and uranium, to states that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or that refuse to open all of their nuclear sites to international inspections. This pretty much blocked nuclear sales to India, a country that rejected the NPT and says it will never allow inspections of all of its nuclear plants. 

Both Washington and Canberra, though, were confident that they could get the NSG to make an exception for India. The Howard Government even told New Delhi that Australia would sell it uranium and would overturn its own ban on uranium sales to non-NPT states.  Washington, meanwhile, announced it could finalize the nuclear deal and secure NSG approval before 31 December. 

Since October, however, three developments have complicated matters. First, critics of the US nuclear deal in India’s parliament have threatened to bring down Prime Minister Singh’s government if he proceeds. Their worry is that the deal will prevent India from resuming nuclear testing without risking a suspension of foreign nuclear fuel supplies,and that the US will demand that India cut its energy and military ties with Iran.  

Second, the US Congress made it clear that the Indian deal will not proceed unless India and the NSG do more than what US diplomats are demanding.  The House passed a bill that would sanction nations that invest in Iran’s oil and gas sector – something New Delhi is committed to doing. Also, key members of the House Committee on Foreign Relations just tabled a bill that would require President Bush to demand that the NSG condition any exception for India to accord with US nuclear control laws. Secifically, the NSG would have to stipulate that if New Delhi resumed nuclear testing, all NSG members would have to suspend their nuclear supplies to India.  

Finally, the Howard Government was voted out of office and Kevin Rudd, who campaigned promising to tear up Australia’s offer to sell uranium to India, is now prime minister. In pledging to tear up Australia’s offer, Mr Rudd was simply upholding Australia’s binding commitment as a member of to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone not to sell controlled nuclear goods to any country that has not yet signed the NPT. 

All of this raises several questions that deserve the attention of the new Australian government. India says uranium sales are the touchstone of a stronger relationship with Australia, a relationship Canberra wants to strengthen. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how Mr Rudd could be true to his pledge not to supply uranium to India while being silent on or approving of an NSG rule change that authorized all other countries to supply nuclear fuel to India. Should Australia back such an unconditional NSG exception? Should it block it? Should it allow such a rule change but demand that the NSG condition the supply of nuclear goods to India upon New Delhi not resuming nuclear testing or living up to some other nuclear restraint? There is no easy course. 

Some might argue that raising these concerns at the NSG would undermine Mr Bush’s preferred foreign policy. On the other hand, not making any demands — or, at least, raising such questions at the NSG ad nausea — would clearly undermine US nuclear control laws, laws that are supposed to be binding on President Bush and that the US Congress is demanding be upheld.  Certainly, before Mr Rudd visits Washington early next year, having a position on these questions would be helpful. It might not be wise to say or make any commitment publicly but, by the same token, it would be a mistake not to have clearly thought through one’s views.

Of this much one can be sure: it is would be extremely odd if the White House did not try to lean on Mr Rudd to uphold his predecessor’s position on these matters and demand that Australia approve an unconditional NSG exception for India.  In this we have one of the first clear foreign policy tests of Mr Rudd’s new government.