Australian Prime Minister visits India

Monday, March 6, 2006

Australian Prime Minister John Howard

Australian Prime Minister John Howard began a visit of India yesterday. Interest in the visit has been dominated by the issue of uranium sales and Australia's stance on the recent agreement between the United States and India.

Before departing, Mr Howard gave an interview at Kirribilli House, in which he stressed the importance of Australia's relationship with India, and emphasised their economic significance. "India is one of the great coming powers of the world. The economic growth has been enormous. It's important that we do what we can to strengthen the economic relationship with India," he said.

This is Mr Howards second visit to India as Prime Minister. He will meet the Indian President, Prime Minister, and also Sonia Gandhi and others. The visit is expected to continue until Wednesday.

Uranium sales

Alexander Downer earlier in the week welcomed the US-Indian agreement on nuclear technology, but stated that Australia did not sell to countries that had not ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Mr Howard indicated that there are still no plans to change this policy. "We don't have any plan to change our current policy. We sell uranium to countries which adhere to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," he said.

In an interview later in the day in Delhi, Howard was less committed on the issue, and suggested that policy may change depending on circumstances. "We do have a long-standing policy of only selling uranium to countries that are part of the NPT regime, but we will have a look at what the Americans have done and when we get a bit more information about that we'll further assess it," he said.

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, Foreign Affairs Spokesperson for the Australian Democrats, accused the government of a "backflip" over the issue. "In what looks a policy backflip in less than a week, the PM now appears to be considering the export of uranium to India despite the fact that it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," she said in a press release. Senator Lyn Allsion also called for policy to remain as it is, saying, "The Government must be consistent in its commitment to achieving a nuclear-free world."

Senator Christine Milne of the Australian Greens went further, arguing that Howard was crumbling under pressure from Washington and had backed down over the issue of uranium sales. "The deputy sheriff has once taken his running orders from US President George Bush and is yet again undermining international law. Australia has already torn up international law to follow George Bush into Iraq and Guantanamo Bay; now the world will be less safe as they tear up the NPT," she said.

US-Indian agreement

Mr Howard adopted a wait-and-see approach to the US-Indian agreement. "Of course it has to run the gauntlet of the American political process. We're certainly not going to suddenly change our policy just because the Indians and the Americans have reached an agreement. We'll study it, and if there are things that should additionally be done that are in Australia's interests then we'll do them," he said.