The cost of Australia’s uranium deal with India

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Zushan Hashmi discusses the Turnbull Government's recent unrestricted nuclear deal with India and the diplomatic ramifications for the South Asia region.

THERE IS NO DOUBT that the civil nuclear deal recently signed by Australia and India, for the purpose of exporting uranium, has raised various important questions regarding the use of Australian uranium in India.

Despite these questions being asked, various government officials have reassured the international and domestic community that the deal will build on the bilateral relationship between the two nations, through economic and strategic means.

Yet, it is quite clear that there are various risks involved on Australia’s part, which in turn, can significantly hamper their geopolitical reputation and affect their bilateral relationships with other nations — potentially leading to instability in South Asia.

In the past, Australia has considered exporting uranium to India, particularly under the Howard Government, only for the policy to then be revoked by Kevin Rudd. It was eventually reintroduced by Julia Gillard and then implemented by Tony Abbott. More recently, Malcolm Turnbull, who finally signed the deal along with Narendra Modi, has assured India that his government will follow through with the deal. However, lately there has been almost no further discussion on the matter from both nations.

Australia’s aforementioned vacillation over the years is of no surprise though, as India is one of the four nations that have failed to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Over the years, Australia has always taken a strong stance against exporting uranium or having any form of uranium deals with any state that has refused to sign the NPT. However, due to India’s “good behaviour”, the safeguard agreement it signed in 2008 and the civil nuclear agreement between USA and India, Australia also opted to sign a deal to once again tap into its yellowcake reserves and eventually begin exportation to India.

However, there have been doubts from several prominent leaders, the international community and the general public regarding the safeguards against nuclear proliferation in relation to the deal. Firstly, these safeguards or the lack thereof, have resulted in a largely unrestricted deal that can enable India to use the uranium for nuclear proliferation or at least aid with the proliferation of its nuclear stockpile.

The blame, in this case, falls on the Australian Government, who went against the wishes of its joint committee to carry on with the agreement  – and ignored existing loopholes in the safeguards  – that may provide the opportunity for nuclear proliferation without India having to nullify the agreement or face repercussions.

Furthermore, it is very likely that Australian uranium will also enable India to free up their existing stockpiles, so as to use them for their nuclear weapons program, as stated by the Australian Conservation Fundation's David Sweeney in the past. This is now truer than ever, as Pakistan is on course to possessing the third-largest nuclear stockpile in the world (behind the U.S. and Russia).

After all, it is well known that South Asia as a region has been heavily rocked by instability and insecurity. India and Pakistan have gone to war four times, and have also had several small-scale standoffs since the partition in 1947. Despite India’s economic rise and growing impact on global affairs today, it is still wary of several internal threats and of Pakistan — as often represented in its foreign policy. There is also always the possibility of militants slipping across the border from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Additionally, there is the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear arms falling into the hands of militants, or the aggressive foreign policies of both nations resulting in another war with the potential of going nuclear. The civil nuclear deal can lead to Australia to further fuelling these tensions in the region, which can force Pakistan to retaliate in protest and significantly hurt the steps India and Pakistan have taken in recent months towards reigniting talks.

Moreover, this can result in an imbalance across the wider region, which is likely to displease China — Australia’s largest trading partner and ally in the Asia-Pacific. China, which has also invested significant sums of money into Australian mining companies, may be led to believe that Australia is taking a stance against China and its ally Pakistan, with the U.S. and India.

On a positive note though, developments on the matter have taken a standstill in recent weeks, with no elaborations or further discussions on the civil nuclear deal. Then again, this is no surprise as it took a sizeable amount of time for the U.S. and India to reach their own civil nuclear deal.

This is a great opportunity for Australia to consider the several alternative energy exportation means available to them that are just as likely to succeed and without risking regional instability in the Indo-Pacific region. These include solar and wind power and coalmining. Furthermore, strengthening the relationship in the education sector (a goal both countries continue to pursue) can also benefit Australia on a wider scale, as it will also keep China at bay. China, along with India, has one of the largest international student populations in Australia.

It is vital that Australia rethinks the impact of exporting uranium to India while maintaining its strong bilateral relations with the country. The Government must also come to realise how this deal can affect the current dynamics of South Asia, the wider Indo-Pacific region and the perception of Australia across the global community. Regional instability in an already volatile region is the last thing Australia needs to get involved in.

You can follow Zushan Hashmi on Twitter at @zushanhashmi.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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