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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