Leadership Down Under
Saturday, April 5, 2008; 12:00 AM
Australia is under pressure, from both abroad and at home, to make an exception to global nuclear trading rules for India. Since taking office last November, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has taken a principled stand against the further spread and use of nuclear weapons and materials. In particular, he promised that Australia -- one of the world's largest uranium exporters -- would trade only with countries that play by international nuclear rules.
Rudd should stand firm, honor his campaign promise and continue Australia's strong nonproliferation record by opposing or at least imposing conditions on the India deal. This approach could put him on a collision course with the United States and Australia's opposition party.
Since his victory, Rudd has charted a more independent course for Australia -- distancing his government from the Bush administration -- by immediately signing the Kyoto Protocol, attending climate talks in Bali and announcing the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq.
But it was his scuttling of the former Prime Minister John Howard's proposal to enable the sale of uranium to India -- a plan that contravened Australia's longstanding policy not to export uranium to countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- that has the Bush administration and Rudd's opposition worried.
Bush needs Australia to turn a blind eye to the civil nuclear cooperation deal he has cut allowing India an unprecedented exception to the global rules governing nuclear trade. The Bush administration claims the controversial and troubled deal will bring India into the "nonproliferation mainstream." Even those in favor of the deal hint it has more to do with nuclear weapons recognition for India than with nuclear energy cooperation. Tellingly, after three years, the United States is no closer to assurances from India that it will buy U.S. reactors than it was before.
Instead, India stands to gain the privileges of non-nuclear weapon states -- such as help with a civil nuclear energy program -- without taking on the obligation of nuclear weapon states to disarm. Making such an exception for India threatens to undermine the system of global rules preventing the further spread and use of nuclear weapons.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group, established in response to India's 1974 detonation of a nuclear explosive device, would have to approve this exception to its rules. Its 45 member countries make decisions by consensus, and many -- including some European members without nuclear weapons -- are concerned about the India deal. Few, however, have so far actively opposed the United States. Major nuclear suppliers such as Russia and France, having signed nuclear cooperation deals with India, actively support the exception. Leadership in the group is badly needed.
When it meets next month, the group could take up a decision on an Indian exception if India's nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency is in place by then -- which is not yet assured. Will the smaller states -- those without significant nuclear exports -- muster enough courage to reject the deal? Australian leadership would send the message that even key nuclear suppliers are willing to put nonproliferation before profit.
Other outcomes for the meeting are possible. At the very least, Australia could help impose conditions that would make the deal less harmful. For example, Australia could insist on conditions that are already U.S. law under the Hyde Act of 2006, including ensuring a cut-off of nuclear exports if India tests nuclear weapons again. To fail to even impose this restriction would call into question the raison d'etre of the group.
With 24 percent of world reserves of uranium, Australian production is key to assuring stable and affordable supplies. Without Australia's leadership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the exception will likely be adopted without restrictions. With Australia's leadership, there is a chance to sustain the global rules that so far have worked well to keep small the number of states with nuclear weapons.
The writer is deputy director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.