I have to confess that I’m baffled.

Over the last couple of days, we’ve seen a seismic shift in Australia’s stated foreign policy — a shift with massive global implications that are already starting to reverberate around the region — and the mainstream media has given it no more than a cursory glance.

We’ve known it was coming. But until yesterday Australia still officially subscribed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). We still respected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. We still, officially, believed that Australia should not sell uranium to countries which illegally acquired nuclear weapons.

Yesterday, that orthodoxy, born of a practical desire to prevent nuclear devastation, was overturned without so much as an official announcement. And, perhaps in part because of that silence, nobody seems to have noticed that the world is that much more dangerous today than it was on Tuesday.

Alexander Downer, who previously opposed the idea, is madly spinning it as another “practical” initiative from his “practical” government, as opposed to those “theoreticians” who want to see the NPT respected. Yesterday, Downer told ABC:

Now I’m a practical person – India isn’t going to sign the NPT any time soon.


[Opponents say] this will contribute to nuclear proliferation. I say a practical person can see that it won’t. It will have the reverse affect. This will provide still more safeguards than we currently have.

The day before, he told Jon Faine what those safeguards would be:

[A]ny uranium that would be exported to India would have to be subject to international atomic energy agency monitoring and so would the nuclear power plants that the uranium was used for.

That’s a relief. As long as we keep tabs on our uranium, it’s OK.

Actually, no. Indian leaders have quite explicitly said that they intend to use imports of uranium from countries like Australia to free up their own supplies for weapons development. In December 2005, the former head of India’s National Security Advisory Board, K Subrahmanyam, told the Times of India:

Given India’s uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India’s advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapon-grade plutonium production.

So much for Downer’s belief that Australia’s deal will provide “more safeguards than we currently have”.

Of course, we should all be reassured that this deal won’t go ahead unless and until the US-India deal is sealed. But the flaws in that deal were revealed overnight, with a debate emerging as to whether there is anything in it to prevent India continuing its weapons development program. Indian PM Manmohan Singh insists that he can and will continue with the program. It seems there are loopholes in the agreement big enough to fire a nuclear missile through.

Cricket tragic, John Howard, and all Australians should take note of Imran Khan’s warning that Australia selling uranium to India will fuel a new arms race on the subcontinent — the only remaining true nuclear flashpoint on the planet.

But it’s OK. The uranium in the bombs won’t be Australian. That’ll be a comfort to the people of Kashmir if they get caught in the middle of a nuclear war.