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    South Asia
     Apr 1, 2006
Australia's discriminatory uranium policy
By Purnendra Jain

ADELAIDE - China's Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to arrive in Australia this Saturday, where he will sign two agreements allowing Australia to supply uranium to China. They would also allow Chinese entities to explore for new uranium deposits and open mines in Australian territory.

These agreements are being hailed as ground breakers between the two nations that have seen their bilateral trade soar over the last 10 years, reaching close to $US28 billion last year.

The two countries form a natural partnership. Australia has some 40% of the world's uranium deposits but no nuclear power plants. China has nine civilian nuclear power plants and is planning to build 30 more over the next 15 years to meet a rapidly growing appetite for energy. However, supplying uranium to China will have serious strategic implications for regional geo-politics, indeed for the world. Therefore these agreements should not be seen as strictly commercial arrangements.

Australia's foreign office negotiators have concentrated on making sure that none of the exported yellow cake winds up in Chinese (or any other country's) nuclear bombs. That may not pacify opponents of uranium exports. The Australian Labor Party still officially opposes exporting uranium to anyone. It is in opposition at the national level but still controls the governments of several states, including Western Australia, where many deposits are located.

Some have questioned Canberra's decision to supply uranium to China but deny access to India - another rising Asian giant with a growing appetite for energy. That decision has already created a great deal of consternation across the region. The Australians argue that China being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) makes it eligible to receive its uranium, whereas India's refusal to sign the treaty is why the government will not supply uranium to India.

A flawed argument
But even though China signed the NPT, it has not always acted responsibly. It is widely believed that Beijing has supplied nuclear technology to North Korea and Pakistan, states run by autocrats and military dictators, and has nuclear ties with Iran. On the other hand, India has never proliferated nuclear weapons or technology to third parties despite not having signed the treaty because it believed it to be discriminatory. It is unfortunate that Canberra has disregarded this salient point and avoids the issues behind it on technical grounds.

This month the US announced a deal to supply nuclear power technology to India. At the same time the current administration views China with suspicion, especially as Beijing's defense spending is, in Washington's view, increasing disproportionately given the perceived threats to its security interests. China's growing influence in Southeast and Central Asia, its outreach into Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific are all part of its quest for influence and energy stability.

So it is no surprise that China figured prominently at the first ministerial-level Trilateral Security Dialogue between Washington, Tokyo and Canberra held in Australia last month. At this meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that China was potentially a negative force in international affairs. Although Japan did not openly express its concern about China at this meeting, Tokyo is equally worried about her neighbor's military expansion, and political relations between Tokyo and Beijing have deteriorated.

Canberra sees China in a somewhat different light from its two security partners. For Australia, China is a vast commercial opportunity and a country which is bound to become more and more powerful. Obviously, it is in Canberra's interests to seek friendship and some influence over this now powerful neighbor. But while seeking friendship with China makes good sense for Australia, it is diplomatically imprudent for Canberra to insist that New Delhi sign the NPT before Australia considers supplying uranium to India.

India, too, is a rapidly growing economic power which is also seeking to expand its power and influence regionally and globally. For Australia, India is also emerging as a major trading partner. Trade over the past five years has actually grown at a much higher rate than that between Australia and China. Prime Minister John Howard, who was initially reluctant to consider selling uranium to India, has changed his tune recently by commenting that India's behavior on nuclear weapons had been "impeccable" since the country first exploded a nuclear device in 1974.

Australia's decision to supply uranium to China and not to India certainly pleases the Chinese leadership. China is unimpressed by the recent agreement between the US and India on the transfer of civilian nuclear technology. In Beijing's view Washington is supporting New Delhi as a counterbalance to the "peaceful rise" of China. In an interview with The Australian newspaper this week, Premier Wen is reported to have given his support to Australia's selling uranium to India for "peaceful purposes". Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership views India as a competitor for power and jealously defends its position as Asia's main nuclear power and sole permanent representative on the UN Security Council.

Supplying uranium to China opens a new era in Australia-China relations, but it also inaugurates a new race between India and China in the field of nuclear technology and nuclear energy. Such sales also have the potential to aggravate the already complex issues related to the nuclear proliferation as has recently been witnessed in North Korea and Iran. If international regulatory regimes are not effective and China uses Australian uranium to build weapons and make them available to her "friends" and "allies" in the region, as it has done in the past, this week's agreement will have major consequences for world politics.

Purnendra Jain is a professor and head of Adelaide University's Center for Asian Studies in Australia

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