Uranium reservations

The Rudd government has created a window of opportunity for China to lock in Australia’s uranium supplies

Greg Sheridan writes that Australia’s policy on rejecting uranium sales to India will eventually change, but step by step.

Now, however, Australian policy suffers a serious contradiction. In supporting the deal, Australia is urging all other members of the international community to engage in full nuclear trade with India, including the supply of uranium, without which it will be impossible for India to build nuclear power stations.

Yet official Australian policy is that while it supports the deal and will engage in nuclear technology trade with India, it won’t supply uranium to the world’s biggest democracy because New Delhi is not a signatory to the NNPT.

This contradiction is, of course, madness. And make no mistake: while New Delhi fully understands Canberra’s position, deeply appreciates its support at the IAEA and the NSG and understands that the Rudd Government won’t support the various stages of the deal until they are actually agreed to, eventually a refusal by Australia to sell uranium to India, while selling it to China and Russia, would lead to deep trouble between Canberra and New Delhi.

That’s why eventually the Rudd Government will move away from its ban on uranium to India. Step by step, one stage at a time, in concert with the international community, but the destination of selling uranium to India is surely now inescapable as a result of the sensible decisions we’ve taken up to now. [The Australian]

Having overturned its predecessor’s decision, the Rudd government has only set the clock back by a few years. This gives China the opportunity to lock in Australia’s uranium supplies, and Chinese state-owned firms are doing just that. China’s failed attempt to block the NSG’s waiver to nuclear trade with India should be seen in this context.

Discussing Australia’s domestic debate on regulating Chinese investment into the country’s natural resource sector, Lowy’s Mark Thirlwell argues that while changes to rules on foreign investment are not necessary, “the number of cases where foreign government ownership will represent a challenge to Australia’s national interest will turn out to be very small. But ‘very small’ is not the same as zero.” It is for thinking Australians to consider whether it is their interest to allow the Chinese government to buy into its uranium mines before Indian companies are even allowed to purchase the ore.

Concerning Australia’s uranium sales

The Rudd government would do well to climb out of an unnecessary hole it has dug for Australia

Greg Sheridan has a very insightful piece on the India-US nuclear deal and the stakes for Australia (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran). He gets it right when he argues that Australia can’t hope to enjoy a close relationship with India if it maintains a discriminatory policy on uranium sales.

Then the deal must be approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Here’s where Australia comes in. With something like 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves, Australia is a key member of the NSG. So far, the Rudd Government has not said whether it will support the US-India deal at the NSG or oppose it.

It has however hinted that it would support the deal at the NSG, a hint Foreign Minister Stephen Smith repeated yesterday. Certainly Australia could kiss goodbye forever the idea of any decent relationship with India if it opposes the deal at the NSG.

Accepting the deal at the NSG would not commit Australia to supplying uranium to India. However, that will be the next big question…

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Andrew Robb has effectively homed in on the contradiction between the Rudd Government selling uranium to China – which has a terrible, though not recent, record of nuclear proliferation – while refusing to sell uranium to India, which has never passed on nuclear technology to anyone.

..the Rudd Government will face a deep contradiction between supporting the US-India deal in the NSG, then saying it will not sell uranium to India. It will face an even bigger contradiction between its concern with greenhouse gas emissions and taking action, by refusing uranium to India, that impedes the development of clean energy. [The Australian]

Rudd-erless

Alphabet soups and unwarranted trips down under

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, has created a kerfuffle among Asian foreign affairs types this month by calling for something he calls the Asia-Pacific Community. Now that represents ‘inclusive growth’—that is, of the alphabet soup of Asian multilateral organisations—for every country east of India and West of the United States is included (no, not Taiwan, dear, because Mr Rudd would be the last person to argue that it needs a seat of its own). To fly this new kite he got Richard Woolcott, an octogenarian diplomat who worked on creating the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) when he used to be a sexagenarian diplomat.

It is unfathomable why people should think that just because some European countries got together to form the European Union, it is somehow desirable, possible and important for Asian countries to behave similarly. For all the talk about the EU project, it has yet to pass the Turkey test. Undeterred by the lacklustre performance of most of these Asian outfits—APEC was dead by the time Mr Woolcott became a septuagenarian diplomat—Mr Rudd floated his new idea. As Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf argues there is “substantial merit in trying to fix one of the existing regional houses rather than building a new one.”

In this context, the Times of India reports that Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee ‘backed’ Mr Rudd’s idea to save him from embarrassment. Actually, Mr Mukherjee did not so much back the idea as to note that India “would watch with interest” whatever Mr Rudd has set about to do. Translated into plain English, it means “okay, whatever”.

But Mr Mukherjee shouldn’t have been visiting Australia in the first place. Mr Rudd’s actions suggest that he favours a ’tilt’ towards China. His party’s position is clear about the important question of the sale of uranium to India—it won’t sell unless India signs the NPT. Mr Mukherjee should have waited until Mr Rudd’s government was ready to engage India seriously.

Update: In an op-ed in The Asian Age (via email from Adityanjee) Professor Purnendu Jain writes that the ‘onus of engagement should not be left to Australia’. That even if Mr Rudd has shown little interest in engaging India, New Delhi should take the initiative. Mr Mukherjee’s visit, he argues, is a step in the right direction.

That’s questionable. It is for Australia to assess whether or not it would like to benefit from India’s economic growth. It is for Australia to assess whether or not it can leverage India’s geopolitical power to further its own interests. India can envision a future where Australia is a marginal economic and strategic partner. What about Australia?

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System

The Quad is dead

Australia has decided that it pays to be nice to China

There’s an interesting discussion going on down under about the death of the “Quad”, a grouping involving India, Japan, Australia and the United States. It was not only seen as an Asia-Pacific “concert of democracies”, but more importantly, as a quiet attempt to balance China’s rising power in the region.

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Raoul Hienrichs argues that more than the election of pro-China governments in Japan and Australia, the Quad died because China killed it (peacefully, of course).

But there is also something quite revealing about this dynamic. That the Rudd Government did not have to explicitly defer to China’s concerns, because Tokyo and New Dehli had already backed away from the quadrilateral arrangement, is itself a clear indication of China’s rising influence and perhaps Washington’s gradual relative decline in Asia. Moreover, China’s willingness to use its considerable diplomatic weight to prevent the emergence of a regional grouping perceived to be inimical to its interests suggests a new level of confidence in China’s foreign and strategic policy, and an increased awareness among its policy makers of their capacity to independently shape China’s strategic environment. [Lowy Interpreter]

Clearly, at a time when the Australian economy is witnessing a sustained boom thanks to resource exports to China, and that the economic news coming out of the United States is getting worse, the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government might have calculated that now is not the time to attempt to balance China. Snubbing Japan, though, was wholly unnecessary. For if ever Australia changes its mind on its own position vis-a-vis China’s strategic rise, Japan, India and the United States are the only ones it can count on. For them, the interests that led to the move towards the quadrilateral initiative are fundamental—even if current governments are lukewarm about a showy new regional grouping.

Call the team back!

India must pull out of this series…for the sake of good cricket

The Catapult makes an important point about geopolitics in a post on how India was subject to all-round cheating in Australia:

In a way this is symptomatic of the way India approaches its foreign relations, trying to belong to institutions and abide by the rules of a world order shaped by other powers to suit their own agendas and hoping that its “good behaviour” will be recognised and rewarded rather than like China which threatens to undermine it unless it is satisfactorily accommodated in the global power structure. And no prizes for guessing who is getting the better bargain. [The Catapult]

The Indian cricket authorities have been content to try and exploit the economic opportunities that result from India’s market power. That they failed to ensure that umpires and referees didn’t cheat the India team says something about BCCI’s attitude towards the ‘politics’ of the game.

Queuing up outside the the ICC’s office with an appeal in hand is not the thing you do after something like this. It would serve the interests of Indian cricket (and that of cricket itself) better if India were to just call the team back and call off the rest of the series. Why?

Because it’s not merely about revoking the three-match ban on Harbhajan Singh. But because the BCCI must ensure that atrocious umpiring and match refereeing don’t recur in future.

Bad umpires and ungentlemanly behaviour are much better deterred by calling the series off. This is a far more credible signal precisely because it is a costly signal. So far, the BCCI has not distinguished itself in this episode—torn as it is between its role as the dominant controller of the Indian cricket market and the steward of the Indian cricket team. It issued half-a-threat and then half-retracted it. In doing so it revealed its intentions: that it is not really serious about backing its cricketers or ensuring that Indian teams don’t suffer in future. It just wants the dismal show to go on…

It is not for BCCI to worry about geopolitics. It is not the time to strike some “wishy-washy” compromises. If the BCCI cares for Indian cricket, it would do well to bring the players back home. [Update: As expected, BCCI tries and contents itself with a compromise]

Related Link: The Other Side on Monkeygate: Things BCCI can do

On recrafting Australia’s relations with India

It’s as much about institutional capacity as it is about issues of the day

Rory Medcalf from Sydney’s Lowy Institute for International Policy wrote an open letter to Australia’s new foreign minister. Excerpts:

Your Government has the opportunity to ensure that Australia becomes permanently serious about India, and to manage any ill-feeling that might arise in New Delhi from ruling out uranium sales.

Early reassurance, at the highest level, that Australia wants qualitatively improved ties with India. Any misperception that Australia might focus on China at India’s expense needs to be scotched.

Proper resourcing of Australia’s diplomacy with India: this has several facets. India is not just another country. The billion-plus scale of its population is echoed in its cultural and geographic diversity and the size and complexity of its mass media, political and business interests. In this context, and if your agenda is ambitious, the tradition of representing Australia’s interests in India with modest diplomatic, bureaucratic and financial resources cannot last. It is time to consider a full India branch in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and a diplomatic presence beyond New Delhi. If Canberra sees fit to deploy diplomats (rather than narrowly-focused trade representatives) in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, why not Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata? Finally, DFAT has not cultivated a single Hindi-speaker in a decade. Yes, India’s elite speaks English. But much of the political life of the country uses the vernacular, and to consider it not to be worth schooling a single Australian diplomat in that language is a false economy, not to mention an insult to a major world civilisation. (Hindi is also a backdoor to Urdu, and Australia’s diplomatic and security agencies desperately need talent in that language.) [Lowy Interpreter]

Medcalf’s arguments echo what this blog wrote during the Mohammed Haneef imbroglio: Australia must invest in institutional capacity that to engage India. Mr Stephen Smith would do well heed the contents of Rory Medcalf’s memo.