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A new partnership in nuclear diplomacy

By Kurt Winter - posted Thursday, 19 November 2009

During his visit to India last week, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a significant diplomatic overture, proclaiming his desire to build “a comprehensive, enduring strategic partnership between India and Australia”. Despite past differences, Rudd argued that India and Australia are “natural partners” with mutual interests in both the region and the world.

Recent negotiations have focused on issues such as trade, defence, education and energy. However, a partnership with India should also be seen as an effective strategy in revitalising the international non-proliferation and disarmament agenda.

In May 2010, world leaders will come together to negotiate the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Australia has already sought to play a leading role, evidenced by Rudd’s establishment of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, a joint initiative with Japan, aimed at reinvigorating the NPT and engaging countries outside the treaty.


Nevertheless, as former Australian diplomat, Rory Medcalf, emphasises, in order to make significant progress Australia also needs to invest in regular “first track” or government-to-government diplomacy. In this vein, a strategic partnership with India should be at the forefront of Australia’s diplomatic efforts.

India is of critical importance to a comprehensive solution. Because India exploded nuclear devices in 1974 and 1998, it does not qualify as a nuclear weapons state under the treaty. The NPT created a system of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”, defining a nuclear weapons state as one “which manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive devise prior to 1 January 1967”. Medcalf aptly describes the problematic “grand bargain” as a commitment on the part of the then nuclear powers that “if you don’t start smoking, I’ll quit”.

On face value, India appears an unlikely partner on this issue, given its development of a nuclear deterrent outside the NPT. On closer analysis, however, India has similar aspirations to Australia regarding disarmament and non-proliferation. At the recent United Nations General Assembly debate in October, India set nuclear disarmament as the highest priority and argued that non-proliferation objectives should be achieved through a concerted international effort.

Despite the rhetoric of establishing a strategic partnership, Australia needs to deal head on with the decisive issue capable of transforming Australia’s relationship with India - Australia’s uranium export policy. India’s strategic outlook is focused on securing uranium for energy use. Given that Australia possesses the largest known reserves of uranium, selling uranium to India could transform the relationship into an indispensable partnership.

The difficult question is under what conditions would Australia pursue such a deal. In August 2007, following the watershed US-India agreement to supply India with uranium, the Howard government announced its “in principle” decision to export uranium to India “subject to very stringent safeguards and conditions”. Former US State Department senior scientist, Peter Zimmerman, condemned the decision arguing that it would undermine the integrity of the NPT. Subsequently, the Rudd Government overturned the decision, insisting that Australia would not sell uranium to India.

Australia should pursue a more nuanced diplomatic path. In Australia’s ongoing negotiations with India, the promise of uranium sales should be used as a bargaining chip that seals the deal for a strategic partnership. Such a partnership could then be used to spearhead progress in reforming the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.


Though difficult, such an initiative will serve Australia’s long-term national interest. As Ron Walker of the Australian National University argues, the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime “continues to erect significant obstacles to would-be proliferators” and in Australia’s experience, it prevents the nightmare scenario of a regional nuclear arms race. Walker also makes the point that, in light of Australia’s geostrategic weight, Australia has “a vested interest in a norm-based international system built on the equality of states and in uniformly applied rules”.

The present discriminatory system cannot be sustained. A strategic partnership between Australia and India presents an opportunity to lead this vital reform agenda.  First and foremost, as Medcalf argues, Australia should recognise nuclear security “as a priority national security issue”, that is the whole nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament agenda, including its interaction with nuclear energy.

Australia should then invest significant diplomatic capital into transforming the relationship with India into a fruitful partnership. Given Australia’s key role in the establishment of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, Australia has both the interest and credentials to pursue such an ambitious strategy.

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About the Author

Kurt Winter is a Policy Offer at Left Right Think-Tank, Australia’s first independent and non-partisan think-tank of young minds. Kurt is currently completing an Arts/Law degree at the University of Queensland with an Honours year in International Relations. His Honours thesis is focused on preventive diplomacy as a means of operationalising the Responsibility to Protect principle, affirmed at the 2005 United Nations World Summit.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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