India-Australia Relations: Julia's Nuclear Tango
18 Oct, 2012 · 3730
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra discusses the ramifications of Jullia Gillard's ability to negotiate with the Indian nuclear establishment
As expected, nuclear negotiations took centre stage during Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to Delhi. Much talk of cultural links owing to the English language, cricket, a Westminster style parliament was bandied about. While Australia insists on a multifaceted engagement to build deep interdependencies, India sees only its one point agenda in all of this and has held ties hostage to the supply of Uranium. While opinions in Delhi seem optimistic many factors point to need for a hard reality check.
To start off, Australia as of now has no capacity to supply India. Given its current commitments are backlogged, new mines in Olympic Dam (South Australia) were meant to generate the additional uranium that would feed India. Given that India’s much trumpeted nuclear reactor construction binge has fizzled out, the market pressures that would have spurred on Olympic dam’s expansion added to Australia’s own internal anti-nuclear sentiments means that this will probably not happen. What this means is that in the next five years we should not expect any shipments from Australia.
Logistical problems aside there are legal issues at work here which may ossify the relationship into its current lukewarm state. Australia in all its other nuclear supply agreements insists on a total separation of personnel – i.e. people working in civilian facilities fuelled by Australian uranium cannot be transferred to weapons facilities at any point of time – past present or future. Gillard it is reliably learnt insisted on this clause. Given that her minority government is dependent on the greens, who are already angered by the nuclear deal with India, there is only so much that they can be pushed around before things snap.
The India-US nuclear deal had one aspect of tacit proliferation built into its structure – the horizontal proliferation of knowledge from the civilian to the military. As a result while all kinds of water-tight restrictions were placed on the transfer of materials and power, none was placed on the movement of scientists. This of course was well known, since the point was to acquire French reprocessing technology – ostensibly for civilian purposes but then to duplicate the same to improve India’s reportedly dismal weapons material reprocessing.
Australia however will have none of this – and all indications are that their diplomats have smartened up to India’s negotiating tactics on this score. India’s sob story rests on the basis of acutely limited domain knowledge. That is to say since the pool of trained nuclear scientists is so small they have to do everything from running reactors, ensuring power output, reprocessing spent fuel, refining raw fuel, auditing their colleagues, and making bombs when they get some free time. Indian diplomats presumably will argue this exact story – and ask that Australia make concessions on this score. If it gets nasty the negotiating position will swing to the fact that Australia is providing us with raw material not technology and they should confine their overly long noses only to the safety and security of their produce.
While Indians have a right to be indignant here we need to remind ourselves that the Australians are in fact doing us a favour. The Indian “negotiating position” is complete tosh. Much of this has to do with India’s nuclear scientists wanting to protect themselves from accountability. The scary state of Indian reactors, their safety and security has long been whispered about – but was blown apart by the CAG’s indictment a few months back. In effect no other institution in India has the kind of hilarious “self auditing” and complete lack of accountability outside of the Indian judiciary. But this same establishment also gave us the bomb (even if most of those bombs were duds) and so control the institutional mechanisms of nuclear negotiations with an Iron fist – having direct access to the prime minister and shielding all errors of omission and commission with the label “TOP SECRET” – a luxury even the Indian judiciary can’t afford.
Whether or not Australia achieves this separation in the Indian establishment, this does force a closer introspection within India’s establishment. This is good for us on a variety of counts – especially safety and security but also in terms of being forced to expand its educational capacity to produce more nuclear scientists and a far greater professionalism in the manufacture, storage and deployment of our bombs. In short this is good for our arsenal as it is for our infrastructure – despite what our nuclear establishment tells us. The real tests will lie of course in how good Australia’s negotiating pitch is – if they make the mistake of casting this as a dogmatic sine qua non, we all lose.