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
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
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
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