(A version of this blog was first published in Dawn.com on 6 December 2011)
THE Labor Party at its biannual national conference which was held in Sydney 2-4 December decided by a thin majority to support the Australian prime minister’s motion to scrap the party’s nonsensical and contradictory uranium export policy banning the sale of uranium to India.
This is a welcome development. It would appear, listening to the prime minister’s and her ministers’ comments on this issue, that the reasoning behind the change of policy was to maximise the prosperity and the strength of Australia’s relationships in the Indian Ocean region.
This is after all the ‘Asian century’, as it was repeatedly trumpeted at the latest APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting held in Hawaii in November. So Australia might as well take advantage of its geo-political position.
Changing Australia’s uranium policy also makes complete sense commercially. Why let the Canadians corner the market when we have most of the world’s uranium?
It also makes a lot of sense strategically. If selling uranium to India brings India even more into the western camp, the better it is for Australia.
But, of course, as with any policy changes, there will be a reaction. In this case, having opened Pandora’s uranium box, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd can expect a call – if he hasn’t already had one - by the Pakistani high commissioner making a case for selling Australian uranium to Pakistan as well.
And there would be a case to be made for saying yes to Pakistan’s request. There are several reasons for this. But before agreeing to sell uranium to Pakistan, the latter would need to meet a couple of stringent pre-conditions.
First, Pakistan would need to make a formal pledge to the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group that it would not share sensitive nuclear technology or material with others and that it would uphold its voluntary moratorium on testing nuclear weapons. This is a pledge India gave in 2008 and has adhered to since then.
Second, Pakistan would need to lift its blocking tactics in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament which prevents the implementation of the agreed programme of work on the international ban on the production of new nuclear bomb-making material.
If Islamabad met these two critical pre-conditions it would hopefully reassure the Australian government.
Let me now deal with the reasons why Australia should consider selling uranium to Pakistan if it does meet the above pre-conditions.
First, Pakistan, like India, is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And, like India, it has no intention of signing up to it. But then the NPT was pretty much made irrelevant when the US decided to sign a civilian nuclear agreement with India in 2006 even though the NPT specifically prohibits its members from engaging in nuclear trade with non-NPT members.
Second, Pakistan, like India, is exceptionally energy deficient. The present chronic power shortage reduces economic growth by about two and half per cent of GDP every year. Given its fast-growing population, Pakistan cannot afford this dead weight if it is to make any headway in meeting the massive developmental needs of its 180 million people.
Pakistan has two Chinese-built nuclear plants, with another two to be built over the next few years. Providing uranium would assist Pakistan meet its energy needs. It would confirm that Australia is indeed sincere in wanting to help it with its economic development. Moreover, selling uranium (a clean energy) would assist Pakistan be less dependent on coal (a dirty energy), thus assisting Pakistan to reduce its carbon footprint.
Third, if Australia were to refuse Pakistan’s request, it would strengthen the hand of the anti-western religious extremists and militants now wreaking havoc in Pakistan. They would argue that this confirmed that the West is anti-Muslim and only interested in assisting Pakistan’s arch enemy, India. It would weaken an already fragile democracy.
Accordingly, selling uranium to Pakistan would strengthen a pro-western civilian government (which could do with a bit of propping up) and help it sell the message that it is in Pakistan’s interest to side with the West, particularly in fighting terrorists and other extremists.
One should not forget that Australia is the second biggest provider of military training in counter-insurgency to Pakistan.
Many would say that, given Pakistan’s track record with Dr A.Q. Khan’s network of selling nuclear programmes to the likes of Libya, Iran and North Korea, Pakistan was the biggest nuclear proliferator. And, in many ways, that’s true. But Dr Khan was put under house arrest for many years. I believe Pakistan has learnt its lesson and, accordingly, the international community needs to move on.
Nevertheless, in addition to the above pre-conditions, before Australia would agree to export uranium to Pakistan would have to also agree to verifiable and enforceable safeguards to ensure that there is no diversion of the uranium for military use.
Needless to say, were this to happen Australia would immediately stop all uranium exports as well as all military cooperation with Pakistan.
If Islamabad did meet the above conditions and Australia did export uranium to Pakistan, the important message Australia would be re-enforcing is that Pakistan, because of its geo-strategic position, has an important role to play in the stability of the Indian Ocean region and Australia is ready to assist it meet that challenge.
Moreover, Australia must not forget that Pakistan, because of its legitimate interests in developments in Afghanistan, will be a critical player in a final resolution of the war in that country. The death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike recently is a sad reminder of Islamabad’s direct and indirect involvement in events in Afghanistan.
So the fundamental question the Australian government will need to now address is the following: if Australia is willing to sell uranium to India, then — and if all the above conditions are met — it needs to be consistent across the board in its application of its new uranium policy. Failure to do so would simply be hypocritical. It would also send the wrong message to a critical player in a geo-strategic important part of the world.