Uranium politics

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

The Canberra-Beijing uranium deal has jolted the U.S. but it is forced to show restraint.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

NEW and dynamic realities of long-term political significance are emerging, almost imperceptibly and certainly behind the scenes, in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia is beginning to play a critical role as the source of a major nuclear material, uranium, but the strategic factor of far-reaching significance is how the United States (U.S.) is seeking to reassert its `enduring' relevance to the Asia-Pacific theatre as the world's `lone superpower'.

For the present, Washington may have stopped a few critical steps short of openly drawing the battle lines against China. However, Beijing has proactively begun to seize the opportunity of this challenge to try and undermine the American game plan. In the process, Australian leaders are finding themselves in the unusual position of having to balance their enlightened self-interest of wanting to treat China as an emerging powerhouse, on one side, with their traditional reliance on the U.S. as the friend in need.

At another level, South Korea, another old-time ally of the U.S., is dropping stronger hints about wanting to break free from the `claustrophobic confines' of Washington's past alliance system and future plans for sustained dominance. In regard to the U.S.-South Korean tussle of political wills, still very much a backstage drama, China is no less the emerging force to reckon with. Beijing has already moved in to keep its options open as regards Seoul, and Washington's near-helpless recourse to China's diplomatic influence over the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the factor in play at this stage.

However, China's southern foray for Australian uranium and Canberra's political and economic diplomacy in this regard, which has certainly alerted if not jolted the U.S., are of more immediate importance to the Asia-Pacific region, especially its vast southern segment.

On April 3, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who often revels in exploring the frontiers of `realism' in neighbourhood diplomacy, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao witnessed the signing in Canberra of a historic bilateral nuclear energy accord. It was hailed by both leaders, who had overseen the pre-accord negotiations, and the linkages now being established are of particular importance to China's ongoing process of modernisation as an ascendant power.

If the U.S. did not stop Australia in its tracks over this uranium deal, three factors dictated the course of restraint. Canberra and Beijing have signed an agreement on "the transfer" of Australia's "nuclear material" for China's civilian projects in the atomic energy sector. To give political currency to this 30-year accord, the two countries have also signed a parallel accord for "cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy". Intrinsic to this nuclear cooperation accord is China's explicit pledge not to divert the prospective supplies of Australian uranium to the production of nuclear weapons.

It is against these reciprocal commitments by Australia and China that the factors behind U.S. restraint assume a certain relevance to the changing dynamics of global politics.

First, Canberra is still seen by Washington as a Western outpost in the Asian neighbourhood and a time-tested ally. Closely linked to this is the ground reality that the U.S. could not have prevented the deal, given that China has shown the willingness to play by the `relevant' rules of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Secondly, Australia's intimate engagement with China over a sensitive issue such as this may suit Washington's purposes as well. Some external observers, and not just China-sceptics among diplomats in East Asia, have pointed to the possibility of Canberra being able to play the proverbial `Trojan Horse' on behalf of Washington while dealing with Beijing on this sensitive matter. Now, whether or not Australia wants to and will be able to do any such favour to the U.S., there can be no argument against the fact that the uranium deal, a collective term for the two inter-related agreements, is firmly rooted in current international law and practice.

The third but not the least factor at work is that the U.S. could not have bargained for a credibility-deficit by opposing the Australia-China uranium deal. Of prime relevance is Washington's ongoing efforts to befriend India by agreeing to treat it as an eminent exception to the current international non-proliferation regime. The U.S. is aware of India's refusal so far to sign the patently discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has acknowledged its exemplary record of non-proliferation, albeit outside the NPT framework. And, while explaining Australia's current policy of distancing itself from India, in some contrast with China on the issue of supply of Australian uranium, Howard also praised India's "impeccable" performance in the non-proliferation domain. It is because of this subtle inevitability of having to compare India with China and vice versa that the U.S. has had no substantive ground to oppose the Canberra-Beijing uranium deal.

Above all, unlike India for reasons of contemporary history, China is a designated nuclear-armed state, alongside the U.S. and three others, under the NPT. Moreover, both China and Australia are members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a forum that works primarily on the principle of unanimity and not just consensus. With the U.S. being a leading member of the NSG, there was little elbow room, if at all, for preventing the Australia-China package over uranium.

While this package is fine under international law, a logical question is why did Australia, which has not so far supplied uranium to non-Western buyers, decide to strike a different path now? Surely, Australia has signalled a remarkable degree of autonomy in respect of the U.S. The chief reason is Canberra's own enlightened self-interest in not just the economic sphere but also the domain of inter-state Asia-Pacific politics.

By signing the nuclear-material-transfer accord with China, Australia can only enlarge its bilateral linkages in a formidable area with strategic implications. Equally importantly, Canberra's latest move, under negotiation for a short period of just over a year, was announced shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had gone to Sydney to fashion a new political-level dialogue forum. Involving Japan as the only other partner, this new forum, known simply as the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, is designed by the U.S. to keep Australia firmly within its Asia-Pacific network of alliances.

The significance of Sydney as the venue for the launch of this forum on March 18 shows up the `anxiety' of U.S. policy mandarins to keep Australia within their flock. With Japan having reinforced its strategic ties with the U.S. last year, Australia was the only other key Asia-Pacific `partner' that the Bush administration had to keep in line as regards China in particular.

Surely, there were no visible fissures across the U.S.-Australia ideological matrix when the Sydney forum, regardless of who was its prime mover, was created. However, the U.S. was, and still is, keen to safeguard its global security interests across the Asia-Pacific realm by ensuring that Australia's policy of "non-containment" towards China is `managed' to Washington's advantage. Australia, too, keeps reaffirming its strong and steadfast alliance with the U.S.

Political historians such as Paul Kennedy have portrayed the U.S. as leading "a Potemkin alliance" in the present phase of the post-Cold War era. The qualitative description of this order is derived from the unmatched strength of a contemporary game character and also the name of an old Russian general, the parallel in the present case being Washington's enormous military superiority over each one of its allies. Viewed in this perspective, the military value of the allies may not be the paramount factor in any U.S. calculus for supremacy across the world. However, the non-military aspects of the strategic value of allies, plus their marginal utility as military associates, are not lost on the U.S. This should explain the unspoken `anxiety' factor in U.S. dealings with its allies, including Australia.

At one level of such strategic importance, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer asserted on March 18, after the launch of the Sydney forum, that it "should not be interpreted as an act of conspiracy against China". He also underlined that Australia was not pursuing a policy of containment in regard to China.

However, the stated objectives of the new Sydney forum had its strategic objectives thinly or hardly concealed. It described itself as an association of "long-standing democracies and developed economies" in the Asia-Pacific theatre.

A "greater trilateral cooperation" was emphasised as the preferred way of "addressing contemporary security issues". And anyone schooled in strategic affairs knows that the U.S. has been looking at China for long through the lens of "contemporary security issues".

Another "particular focus" of the Sydney forum is the objective of "supporting the emergence and consolidation of democracies and strengthening cooperative frameworks in the Asia Pacific region".

That China is the coded target is clear as daylight. U.S. President George W. Bush had, during his last visit to China, made a tentative move, clearly intended though, to suggest that China emulate Taiwan's model of "democracy". With this, the China-focus of the Sydney forum can hardly be in doubt.

At a different level of non-military strategic calculations of the U.S., Australia's new uranium deal can serve as political leverage for monitoring, if not also slowing down or stifling, China's nuclear energy programmes. China has entered into a "safeguards" accord with Australia. Nonetheless, this itself will serve as an aspect of such leverage, given the sensitive dual-use character of this nuclear material and China's expertise in the atomic armament sector.

Closely linked to such considerations of leverage is the success that Australia has had, at this stage, in persuading China to agree to the international market forces for the pricing of uranium. And Australia commands nearly 40 per cent of the global uranium reserves.

China has also evinced great interest in securing rights to mine uranium in Australia. For the present, Canberra has not acceded to this. However, informed Chinese sources have indicated to Frontline that Beijing's request for rights to mine Australian uranium is "still under discussion".

Section 2 (g) of Article V of the agreement for "cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy" stipulates the possibility of "exploration for uranium resources".

This leaves China with the option of continuing to press for mining rights in Australia. Should China eventually secure such rights, it can hope to gain some counter-leverage as regards the U.S.-led camp in determining the direction of the relevant market forces.

The interplay of such complex needs and calculations has impelled Howard to reaffirm, in the context of the uranium deal, Australia's policy of non-containment towards China as also deep and abiding alliance with the U.S.

By calling for "lowest possible temperatures" in the Asia-Pacific region over Taiwan, a non-sovereign territory that belongs to China under the `One China principle', Howard is seeking stability in his neighbourhood. How far does the U.S. share this desire, if that were to give China some political space to become a superpower?

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment