A day after the Labour Party cleared the sale of uranium to India, the Pakistani envoy argued that his country should also be given access to Australia's uranium on the grounds of equity. Like India, Pakistan is also a nuclear weapons State and has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But the cause of non-proliferation demands that Pakistan — and not India — be denied access to Australian uranium. In 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), of which Australia is a member, agreed to lift its embargo on nuclear trade with India. Despite lobbying by Islamabad, there is no sign that it will do the same for Pakistan. The key difference between the two is that India has proved that it is a 'responsible' nuclear power while Pakistan has not.
India was rewarded by the NSG for showing restraint in its policies and for its clean non-proliferation record. As a minimum, the NSG would require Pakistan to agree to similar requirements before any waiver is considered. What is of real concern to NSG members, however, is whether Pakistan’s non-proliferation record suggests that its adherence to such conditions could be relied upon. In an international system with imperfect enforcement mechanisms, a reputation built on ‘responsible’ nuclear behaviour is the most trusted indicator of future behaviour.
Importantly for the NSG, India has never proliferated its home-grown nuclear technologies, despite financial offers from states such as Libya in the late 1970s. This is in contrast with Pakistan. In 2004, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of its nuclear programme, confessed to the transfer of nuclear technology and materials from the late 1980s to the early 2000s to Iran, North Korea and Libya including a substantial numbers of centrifuges, large quantities of uranium hexafluoride, instructions for circumventing international export controls, and blueprints for nuclear weapons.
The government of General Pervez Musharraf denied that there was any State involvement in Khan’s activities, an interpretation that is supported by the present government. There has been no proof that the Pakistani government authorised Khan’s activities. However, given the sheer volume of the transfers and the complexity of the network, it is highly likely that Khan’s activities were tacitly approved of or at least known by leaders within the Army.
Further, Pakistan’s failure to adequately investigate the extent of Khan’s activities undermines Islamabad’s claims of being a ‘responsible’ nuclear power. Even now, the Pakistan government refuses to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to interrogate Khan about his nuclear proliferation activities, which raises questions about just what Islamabad fears would be revealed about the level of state involvement in the network. This does not inspire great confidence in Pakistani claims that the network has been disbanded and that the establishment of formal command-and-control mechanisms through the National Command Authority has removed the risk of such networks emerging in the future.
Apart from Pakistan’s poor nuclear proliferation record, there is the question of nuclear security and whether Australian uranium could find its way into the wrong hands. While the Pakistani government has returned to civilian leadership, the Army continues to play dominant role in military and security affairs.
Pakistan has argued that it, like India, needs access to nuclear trade to expand its nuclear energy programme to support economic growth and mitigate climate change. These are worthy aims. But in the light of its poor non-proliferation record and uncertain control over nuclear technology, Australian uranium sales to Pakistan would be one step too far.
Lavina Lee is Lecturer, Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University, Sydney
The views expressed by the author are personal