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Uranium sales to India: a strategic imperative.

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The Hon Andrew Robb AO MP Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs (to 22 September 2008)

An opinion piece that appeared in today's "Australian"

In August 2007 the Howard Government agreed to export uranium to India for the sole purpose of peaceful and clean power generation.

It marked a huge stride for Australia in forging an enduring strategic partnership with India.

The subsequent Rudd Government decision to overturn this agreement is wrong and unsustainable.

This decision is also confused and inconsistent given that ''enhancing relations with Asia'' is supposed to be one of the three pillars of Mr Rudd's foreign policy.

The decision, and the amateur way in which the decision was communicated to the Indian Government, has left a very bitter taste in Indian mouths.

The original agreement for Australia to sell uranium to India backed the historic US - India nuclear deal which separates India's nuclear energy program from its nuclear weapons program.

And, just as the powerful strategic partnership India is forging with the United States has as its cornerstone this agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation, so too is nuclear cooperation a primary factor in India's prospective full engagement with Australia.

Australia must engage because India has truly begun to look east with constructive and responsible eyes.

India is the emerging economic powerhouse of South Asia.

The time for Australia to make a major political investment in India is now.

Already India is Australia's fourth largest export market, with our coal exports growing 300 per cent in six years.

From a climate perspective there is overwhelming merit in addressing the reality of India's energy needs.

As India grows it will rank third behind the US and China in terms of global energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions.

Two-thirds of India's emissions come from burning coal, mainly in power stations.

If the uranium deal succeeds, and the existing restrictions on the import of nuclear technology and uranium for peaceful power sources are removed, by 2050 as much as 35 per cent of India's total energy needs could be met by clean nuclear power plants.

The Rudd Government's position will also set back the cause of nuclear non-proliferation.

The nuclear protocols agreed to would see 65 per cent of all nuclear reactors in India coming under the strict coverage of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Global non-proliferation would be greatly strengthened by including India, a country which has an exemplary record on non-proliferation.

Furthermore, the Rudd Government's position is unsustainable from the point of view of the damage done to wider bilateral interests, such as the potential free trade agreement.

The US-India nuclear agreement accepts the reality of India as a weapons state, but allows India's peaceful nuclear energy program to gain access to uranium, nuclear technology and nuclear reactors. The agreement would be a break with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which disallows sales of uranium to countries with nuclear weapons, except the nuclear weapons nations of the US, Britain, France, Russia and China.

As India has nuclear weapons it cannot join the NPT, despite never proliferating nuclear technology to any nation.

This contrasts with China which has sold such technology to North Korea and Pakistan in the past.

It is a commonsense accommodation of India's circumstances and standing in the world.

It is remarkable that one of Labor's first acts as a government was to summon the Indian nuclear envoy and advise him that, for 'party political' reasons, Australia would not be selling uranium to India.

The national interest was not considered. Climate change was ignored. Nuclear non-proliferation was sidelined. A China bias was implied. Constructive US policy towards Asia was opposed. India's feelings were trampled on.

It is putting an irrational and weak sop to the hard left of the Labor Party ahead of the national interest. Again it goes to poor judgement.

If Labor is committed to all it has said about global warming, then refusing to sell uranium to India, while supporting new uranium sales to China and Russia, is totally irrational and hypocritical.

This old thinking of Australia's Labor Government is starkly revealed when compared against the agreement last week of Britain and France to construct a new generation of nuclear power stations and export the technology around the world in an effort to combat climate change.

To add to the confusion the Rudd Government is saying to our Indian friends that we do not trust them with our uranium, while at the same time Mr Rudd has said he has not yet made up his mind on whether to veto sales by the 44 other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

This makes no sense. How can Australia refuse to sell our uranium to India, yet plausibly support the rest of the world supplying uranium. Either way, Australia will be adding insult to injury.

The bottom line on all this is that reversing Australia's commitment to sell uranium to India will do substantial damage to the Australia-India relationship.

It makes absolutely no sense to sell uranium to China and Russia, and not to India.

It makes absolutely no sense to claim climate change to be the great moral challenge of our time and then block the adoption of nuclear technology which is greenhouse gas free, and which already provides 16 per cent of the world's electricity needs.

The US-India nuclear agreement is good for India, good for Australia, good for the region, good for climate change and good for nuclear non-proliferation.

In this regard Labor is standing against a critical new engagement in Asia.

This issue can make Australia a strategically important partner to India. It is the thing India really wants from us. It is a big issue.

Labor's position is very bad policy, and disastrous politics. It is a position that is unsustainable. It can and must be reversed.