Australia not willing to give India uranium despite NSG support (Lead)

September 8th, 2008 - 1:41 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Sep 8 (IANS) India is unlikely to get Australian uranium in the near future even as pressure mounts on the Labour government to reverse its ban on uranium exports to India to meet its growing energy demand. Despite supporting New Delhi at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) over the weekend, Australia has reaffirmed that it will not export uranium to India unless the latter signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

“Labour is committed to supplying uranium to only those countries party to the NPT. Australia will, therefore, not be supplying uranium to India while it is not a member of the NPT,” Trade Minister Simon Crean told reporters.

The Kevin Rudd government had last November reversed the initiative by the former John Howard-led coalition government to sell uranium to India for its civilian nuclear programme. Australia has 40 percent of the world’s known uranium reserves.

Rory Medcalf, programme director for international security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, told IANS: “I don’t think Australia’s position on uranium exports to India will change at least for the current term of this government i.e. for another two years. India should recognise that Australia has proven to be very sensitive to India’s situation in its stance of not obstructing the India-US nuclear deal in the NSG.

“This puts an added obligation on Australia to be active in nuclear disarmament, including working with India in consolidating nuclear restraint in Asia. India should not be impatient, but appreciate that Australia is a democracy too and the government has to adhere to party and public opinion.”

Last year, when the Labour party agreed to change its policy to allow expanded uranium mining, the pragmatic wing of the party had to affirm a strict NPT-only policy on uranium export.

“India became the sacrificial lamb. Recently, there has been concern from many quarters in Australia over uranium sales to Russia following events in Georgia. If one day there is a new set of trade-offs on uranium policy within the Labour party, it could be Russia that ends up as the loser, and India might even be a beneficiary”, Medcalf, a former diplomat who has served in India, told IANS.

At the NSG meeting in Vienna that ended Saturday, Australia supported a waiver allowing India to engage in nuclear trade so long as its nuclear programme came under an inspection regime.

“It is hypocritical in the extreme for Australia to refuse to sell our uranium to India, yet plausibly support the rest of the world supplying uranium. To block Australian uranium sales to India while supporting the sale by other countries makes no sense and is an affront to India,” Liberal Party’s foreign affairs spokesman Andrew Robb told IANS.

The Liberals argue that nuclear power is green power and India needs it to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and Australia ought to be supporting India’s efforts.

As Foreign Minister Stephen Smith arrives in New Delhi later Monday on a five-day visit, Robb said: “The foreign minister needs to use this visit to India to announce a reversal of this bad policy. It is disastrous politics. It is a position that is unsustainable. It can and must be reversed.”

Smith has reiterated that Australia intends to take “India to the front line of its international relationships”.

In New Delhi, he will meet External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and a range of key political figures, besides delivering a speech on bilateral relations at the Indian Council for World Affairs, the Indian partner to the Australia-India Roundtable that was announced in June this year during Mukherjee’s Canberra visit.

The inaugural meeting of the Roundtable will be hosted by the Lowy Institute in Sydney in November. The Roundtable will bring together leading individuals from both countries every year to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing Australia and India in the 21st century.

For now, uranium has become the dominant issue in this bilateral relationship and as more questions are being raised about the rationale behind Australia’s refusal to export uranium to India, the Labour government is not any closer to reversing its stand. At least, not just yet.

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