Australian Election Seen Likely to Speed Talks with India on Uranium Deal

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 11, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Newly elec­ted lead­ers in Aus­tralia likely will push to con­clude a trade agree­ment aimed at al­low­ing urani­um ex­ports to In­dia, is­sue ex­perts told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

While it was earli­er pre­dicted to take two years to con­clude the ex­port ne­go­ti­ations, a new Lib­er­al-Na­tion­al gov­ern­ment led by con­ser­vat­ive lead­er Tony Ab­bott likely will push to have trade dis­cus­sions fin­ished “with­in the year,” ac­cord­ing to Amit­abh Mat­too, dir­ect­or of the Aus­tralia In­dia In­sti­tute at the Uni­versity of Mel­bourne.

“The Tony Ab­bott gov­ern­ment will un­doubtedly give a new [push] to ties with In­dia,” Mat­too wrote in an e-mail. “There are few coun­tries in the re­gion which have more in com­mon by way of both in­terests and val­ues than In­dia and Aus­tralia, and the Lib­er­als re­cog­nize this much, much more than Labor did.”

Still, that does not mean Aus­tralia will ease off its de­mands for strong safe­guards in any trade deal that guar­an­tees its urani­um will not be di­ver­ted to In­dia’s nuc­le­ar-weapons pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to spe­cial­ists.

“Both Mr. Ab­bott’s Lib­er­al Party and the Labor Party now in op­pos­i­tion have in the past been care­ful to avoid ap­pear­ing soft on nuc­le­ar safe­guards, giv­en strongly neg­at­ive pub­lic per­cep­tions of nuc­le­ar power and weapons in Aus­tralia,” Chris­toph­er Krem­mer, a fel­low at the Aus­tralia In­dia In­sti­tute, said in an e-mail.

A strong show­ing by the Aus­trali­an Lib­er­al-Na­tion­al Party co­ali­tion in Sat­urday elec­tions un­seated the Labor gov­ern­ment, which has held power since 2007. The Labor Party was voted out of of­fice, in part, due to voter per­cep­tions that it was mis­man­aging the growth of Aus­tralia’s min­ing sec­tor, which in­cludes the world’s largest known urani­um re­serves, ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters.

Rory Med­calf, dir­ect­or of the Lowy In­sti­tute’s In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Pro­gram in Aus­tralia, told GSN in an e-mail he ex­pects the Lib­er­al-Na­tion­al co­ali­tion will place a high­er pri­or­ity on “the steady ex­pan­sion of Aus­trali­an urani­um ex­ports for ci­vil­ian pur­poses and un­der safe­guards.”

“Labor, on the oth­er hand, has al­ways been in­tern­ally di­vided on this is­sue,” he said.

In 2011, the Labor Party — un­der the ur­ging of its then-lead­er and prime min­is­ter, Ju­lia Gil­lard — over­came sub­stan­tial in­tern­al dis­agree­ment and ap­proved a policy per­mit­ting the sale of urani­um to In­dia. Op­pon­ents to the move ar­gued it could un­der­mine arms-con­trol ef­forts as In­dia de­veloped and tested nuc­le­ar weapons out­side the bounds of the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty.

As pun­ish­ment for its ac­quis­i­tion of nuc­le­ar arms, New Del­hi for years was black­balled by the atom­ic-ex­ports mar­ket. Then, in 2008, the United States con­vinced the in­ter­na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Sup­pli­ers Group to al­low sales to In­dia par­tially on the grounds that it had been a good stew­ard of its nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al. A num­ber of na­tions with ad­vanced nuc­le­ar-en­ergy sec­tors, in­clud­ing Rus­sia and France, have since struck bi­lat­er­al atom­ic trade deals with In­dia.

Aus­tralia to date has sold urani­um only to NPT mem­ber states. Un­der the Labor gov­ern­ment, Can­berra had moved slowly in open­ing urani­um trade talks with New Del­hi. The first round of trade talks was held in March.

Can­berra likely will con­tin­ue to in­sist that New Del­hi agree to provide it with form­al as­sur­ances that urani­um ex­ports will not be used to pro­duce weapon-grade nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al, ex­perts said.

“There is no ques­tion … of Aus­tralia al­low­ing its urani­um to be di­ver­ted to non-safe­guarded fa­cil­it­ies, nor has In­dia pur­sued this pos­sib­il­ity in its ne­go­ti­ations,” Mat­too said.

The Lib­er­al-Na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive co­ali­tion in Aus­tralia “con­sist­ently” has favored urani­um ex­ports to In­dia ever since former Prime Min­is­ter John Howard changed policy in that dir­ec­tion in 2007, ac­cord­ing to Med­calf.

“But at no point have they in­dic­ated they would ac­cept any­thing be­low Aus­tralia’s stand­ard of safe­guards as re­quired of oth­er nuc­le­ar-armed re­cip­i­ent na­tions, such as China and Rus­sia,” he ad­ded.

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