IT APPEARS Australia has ditched its longstanding insistence that the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT) should be the principal benchmark in arms control. This is an obvious interpretation of Canberra’s decision to pave the way for uranium sales to India, a country which rejects established treaties aimed at stopping the nuclear arms race. The government believes boosting mining profits, and following Washington’s lead on nuclear cooperation with India, are more important than reinforcing global non-proliferation rules. Consequently, many people around the world will view Canberra as abandoning the high ground in nuclear diplomacy and pulling the rug from under the NPT and some related measures.
Of course, there is a case for selling uranium to India. It’s one that often reflects the views of the US neocons who laid much of the groundwork for the idea. This case can be explained in terms of the following six points.
First, advocates play the global warming card. Indian energy demand is set to sky-rocket and it’s said that unless the bulk of this is met by nuclear energy, the fight against greenhouse gases will be severely set back. For analysts who have watched the United States shift toward supporting Indian nuclear ambitions over the years, though, this putative concern mostly looks like tactical positioning rather than a genuine or driving motive.
Second, advocates say it’s a moral nonsense for the rules to ban civil nuclear sales to a democracy like India while simultaneously permitting sales to an authoritarian state like China just because Beijing has signed arms control agreements. Neocons, and some others, think the essential basis for discrimination in uranium sales should be the character of the recipient government, rather than whether or not it’s a fully signed up member of the non-proliferation regime.
There is some merit in this argument - as long as it isn’t pushed too far, and as long as other parts of the picture aren’t ignored, such as the damage that would result from trashing a widely supported treaty. Treaty adherence and political character both need to be looked at. Here it should be noted that critics of the Indian deal are not necessarily enthusiastic about sales to China, whatever treaties it has signed. In any case, don’t expect many of those politicians, consultants and firms eager to export uranium to India to develop many qualms about trading with semi-fascist China.
Third, it’s sometimes said (although not by Canberra, at least not in public) that the NPT has passed its use-by date. This is usually simplistic rhetoric rather than analysis, but it serves the purpose of making it easier to paint India’s refusal to sign as irrelevant. Unfortunately, this approach risks turning the collapse of the NPT into a reckless self-fulfilling prophecy. It echoes the broader neocon approach to much multilateral arms control, an approach which often looks more like vandalism than prudent management of international security.
Fourth, some arm-chair strategists think India can be used to balance the growing power of China. They believe the West, especially the US, should develop and expand a strategic relationship with the country, and they see nuclear cooperation as part of this grand design.
Fifth, we are told Australia’s hands are clean because inspections will ensure our material won’t find its way into Indian weapons. But imports from here can be used to free up other sources of uranium for India’s military, thus facilitating an expansion of its nuclear arsenal. In addition, the inspection regime will almost certainly be riddled with holes. Some facilities will probably be held up as models of cooperation, but this could be quite misleading. Any suggestion that India’s nuclear infrastructure will be subject to world’s best practice as far as inspections and controls are concerned (on a par with Canada, Germany or Japan, for instance) is complete nonsense, as Canberra well knows.
Sixth, it’s asserted India has a good record and acts in a manner consistent with the spirit of the NPT. This last claim has been repeatedly served up for public consumption and has been a favourite mantra of media supporters of the deal eager to display their supposed expertise on the subject. The government seems to have settled on this line as the key selling point of its policy. It has a point because, as far as we know, India has behaved much better than, say, Pakistan and China. This point has also been pushed too far.
To a large extent the “India-as-good-global-citizen” line is a marketing pitch. It’s as much a product of spin as of examination. It needs to be put into perspective, an exercise which also reveals how far Foreign Minister Downer has been prepared to twist around on the topic. Here it’s worth stepping back a few years.
In the 1990s Australia, more than any other country, was responsible for getting near-universal backing for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) - despite strong opposition from India. The Labor and Liberal governments of the time had much to be proud of as the treaty was widely seen as the key next step in reinforcing the NPT. In 1998 Downer said: “The pivotal role we played in the negotiation and adoption of the CTBT is a reflection of our commitment to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. This regime is central to our national security.”
As Downer explained “One of the great achievements of the CTBT is to provide a codified international benchmark against which the actions of individual members of the international community can be judged. Countries which defy this code of behaviour, as India and Pakistan have done, know that they can expect to feel the full weight of international opprobrium.”
Just two years ago Downer was president of an international conference tasked with bringing the CTBT into legal force, something which requires, among other things, a reversal of Indian policy. He spoke of his “unwavering support” for the treaty and his determination to take it forward, saying it would be “a decisive contribution to world peace and stability for generations to come.” He explicitly argued that a suspension of tests was not an acceptable substitute for full treaty ratification. Moreover, he said of those not ratifying: “we have over the years heard many reasons why this is so. The time for excuses is past. It is time for them to act.” India ignored the appeal.
No matter. The Australian government has now sold out, and backs a rewrite of the rules on nuclear trade for the sake of a country that has repeatedly spat on the CTBT. Even today India insists that deals with foreign governments will not constrain its nuclear weapons program, including its stance on testing. And this stance has been reckless, bloody minded and provocative.
Only India signing and ratifying the CTBT will help fix the damage. For the sake of both keeping multilateral arms control on the rails and Australian self-respect, ratification of the test-ban should have been made one of the conditions of any deal. (There would be an embarrassing problem with this approach, however: a close Australian ally and recipient of our uranium - the US under President George W. Bush - also opposes ratification of the CTBT.) Accepting the fact that India is a nuclear armed state with legitimate nuclear energy needs is one thing, but we should have still kept the bar on uranium deals at a reasonable height. Failing to do so has surrendered leverage and compromised our standing as leaders in non-proliferation.
The internationally agreed regulations on nuclear exports are laid down by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The NSG keeps countries that refuse to sign the NPT on the outer. If the US and Australia have their way, this provision will be blown apart.
Downer should reflect on a key line from the NSG’s website, which says: “The NSG was created following the explosion in 1974 of a nuclear device by a [previously] non-nuclear-weapon State, which demonstrated that nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes could be misused.” The country in question was India; it had lied and bombed its way into the nuclear club. Unfortunately, and however much it was clearly not the intention of Downer and his colleagues, Australia will now be seen as tacitly endorsing this gate-crashing strategy.
Andy Butfoy is a senior lecturer in international relations at Monash University. This is an expanded version of an article published in The Age.