In September, Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed an agreement which will allow sales of Australian uranium to India for the first time.
India has consistently refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has manufactured up to 110 nuclear warheads, but has been given a free pass to take part in international nuclear trade by virtue of its new strategic relationship with the United States.
The Australia-India deal conflicts with Australia’s obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, as well as the NPT.
As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said in September: “Australia will now be directly complicit in a nuclear arms race in South Asia, with India moving to lock in foreign uranium supplies for power generation so it can preserve its domestic uranium for weapons production.”
The deal is the culmination of a bipartisan shift in policy that began under the Howard government, stalled during the Rudd years, and was completed by the Gillard government in 2011.
As US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks illustrate, this shift took place depsite most people in Australia opposing uranium sales to India. It was pushed by governments bending to US interests.
New strategic partnership
In the three decades after India’s first successful nuclear test in 1974, relations between the US and India were cool. By the early 2000s, however, US policy-makers looking to maintain US dominance in Asia came to view India as a potential counterweight to China.
In January 2004, President Bush and India’s Prime Minister Bihari Vajpayee announced they had signed what would become known as the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) agreement.
Under the NSSP, the US and India pledged to take a series of reciprocal steps towards greater co-operation on civilian nuclear activities, space programs and high-technology trade.
The NSSP was hailed as a milestone in US-India relations. However, strong opposition within India threatened to derail the agreement.
When it became clear that a dramatic change in nuclear policy would be needed to win Indian support for the new strategic relationship, the US obliged. So did Australia.
In May 2004, Vajpayee was succeeded as prime minister by Manmohan Singh of the Congress party. Singh supported the NSSP, but the left parties in the new ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), were opposed to closer US ties. They argued that India should maintain an independent foreign policy consistent with its non-aligned status, not become subservient to US interests.
Powerful sections of India’s elite also objected to the agreement on the grounds that India would be forced to accept US-imposed constraints on its military programs without receiving anything substantive in return.
The US Embassy in New Delhi was particularly worried about India’s influential “nuclear establishment”. This sector had concluded, according to embassy sources, that there was “nothing for them in the NSSP, and as a result [had] become outspokenly opposed to movement” on the agreement.
At this time, India wanted to buy uranium for its nuclear reactors, but was locked out of international nuclear trade due to its refusal to join the NPT.
Representatives of the Indian government told the embassy that the US would need to commit to a greater level of nuclear cooperation to win over these opponents and achieve progress on the NSSP.
In April 2005, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Christine Rocca told India’s national security adviser MK Narayanan that the US wanted Singh to commit to a date for visiting Washington “as soon as possible”.
Narayanan responded that although he appreciated that Singh would “be received in grand and majestic style”, New Delhi “needed more on the table”. Progress on civilian nuclear cooperation “would make the visit worthwhile”, Narayanan said.
The US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, recommended that Washington consider the request, writing that the Indian government’s desire for nuclear co-operation “presents us an opportunity where we can leverage flexibility on our part to move Indian policy in other issues of importance to us”.
Nuclear cooperation deal
Singh visited the US in July 2005 and did not leave empty-handed. In a joint statement, Bush and Singh agreed to “transform the relationship between their countries and establish a global partnership”.
As part of the agreement, Bush promised to “work to achieve full civil nuclear energy co-operation with India”.
This would entail persuading the US Congress to amend long-standing legislation, as well as persuading “friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India”.
Specifically, the agreement hinged on US ability to convince the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to exempt India from its requirement that nuclear technology be transferred only to countries that have a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Commission.
The NSG was formed in 1978 in response to India’s first nuclear test and sets guidelines that regulate the global nuclear trade.
This would not be an easy task. The effect of such an exemption would be to allow India access to nuclear technology and materials while keeping its nuclear weapons program and remaining outside the NPT. This would allow India to continue its arms race with Pakistan and set a dangerous precedent to other states.
In short, the cost of buying the support of India’s “scientific establishment” was a deal that could irreparably damage the global non-proliferation regime. For the Bush administration, this was a price worth paying for securing closer ties with China’s increasingly powerful neighbour.
One leader the US could rely on to support the deal was then-Australian PM John Howard. In March 2006, Howard travelled to India, where he signed six bilateral agreements, including a memorandum of understanding on defence co-operation.
The US Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi, Robert Blake, reported that Australia and India were “seeing each other in a new light” after Howard’s visit which, Blake believed, “owes a lot to the U.S. effort to push India onto the world stage”.
In particular, the embassy was “struck by the openness of the [Australian government] to the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal despite the strong anti-nuclear sentiment at home”. At that time, both the governing Liberal Party and opposition Labor Party opposed selling uranium to non-NPT countries such as India.
After expressing public support for the deal, Howard provoked a furore in Australia when he suggested during his visit that his government might change its position on uranium exports to India.
Howard was forced to backtrack, saying that there was “no change of policy” and “no current intention to change that policy”.
However, this cable suggests the government did intend to change the policy and was just waiting for the right political conditions to do so.
Under the heading “a policy can’t change at a press conference”, Blake wrote: “Despite the pressure from Australia’s political opposition and strong anti-nuclear lobby, PM Howard did manage to remain flexible on future uranium exports.”
Blake then recounted comments made by Australian High Commission political counsellor John Fisher (described in the cable as a protected source), Australian High Commissioner to India John McCarthy and Deputy High Commissioner David Holly (incorrectly spelled as “Holley” in the cable).
Blake reported that Fisher had conceded that the negative reaction in Australia to Howard’s comments showed that “the [government] had not done its homework prior to the visit”.
However, Fisher explained, Howard had the tricky task of “not saying to the Indians we're closed to supply, but not hinting at an immediate policy change that would cause domestic political turbulence”.
According to the cable, Holly had told the US Embassy privately that NSG approval of an exemption for India could provide “political cover” for that change in policy, but cautioned “it will take some time”.
Uranium sales approved
As it turned out, the Howard government announced the policy change in August 2007, a year before the NSG met to consider an exemption for India. Another cable from New Delhi suggests that this announcement may have been timed to help the Indian government overcome opposition to the US-India nuclear deal.
The US Embassy reported that the Indian government was talking up plans for other countries to be involved in nuclear cooperation with India to undermine claims the US deal was part of efforts to “lock in India into the US global strategic designs”.
On August 16, 2007, both houses of the Indian parliament were adjourned amid uproar over claims the Indian PM had misled parliament about whether the deal would prevent India from conducting further nuclear weapons tests.
That day, the US Embassy in New Delhi reported that “with help from Australia, France, Russia” the deal would not be blocked. The cable reported: “Australian Embassy contacts confirmed Prime Minister Howard called PM Singh August 16 to say that the Australian Cabinet had approved a plan to sell uranium, pending a bilateral agreement.”
France had also offered “to expeditiously conclude its own bilateral nuclear agreement with India” and the Russian government had offered to build four new reactors at India’s Koodankulam power plant.
Howard’s decision to allow uranium sales to India turned out to be a false start. After his government was defeated in the 2007 general election, new Labor PM Kevin Rudd reverted to the policy of refusing to sell uranium to India unless it signed the NPT.
[This is the first of a three-part series on WikiLeaks cables relating to Australia-India uranium deals.]