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‘Uranium-Strainium’: How Australia’s Profit is Spoiling Japan’s Peace [ 2006.04.19 ]

Today (3rd of April) was an historic day for the relationship between the world’s most populous nation and one the world’s most popular, China and Australia respectively. For today the governments of the two nations reached an agreement for the supply of uranium from Australia to the energy starved Asian giant. The sticking point in the transaction was centred around that all important notion of nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes as opposed to potentially threatening activities such as military research. Australia only felt comfortable selling uranium to China if it openly promised to ensure the end result would be well lit streets and homes not well designed missiles and bombs, and thankfully the Premier of China has agreed to exactly that by signing the ‘nuclear safeguards’ agreement with Prime Minister Howard in Canberra. This has paved the way for Australia to reap huge financial rewards as China looks to stock up on around 20 000 tonnes of the precious yellow mineral at billions of dollars worth of value. This must be deemed as a win-win scenario since China gets relatively clean and green energy and Australia gets income to continue building and expanding its own society. If only life were so simple. China may well be Australia’s most rapidly expanding trading partner but Japan and the United States still sit at numbers one and two respectively. What price will Australia pay for engaging more and more with China and why should a near neighbour like Japan stick their nose into someone else’s business anyway?

No matter how much anybody tries to diplomatically gloss over it, it is painfully obvious that China and Japan are having a hard time being friends. This may not mean much on an individual person to person, tourist to trader level, but in the upper echelons of each national government there are feelings beginning to show in the international community revolving around suspicion, distrust, resentment, and ascendancy. To some extent China is a humble nation in that despite having the world’s largest armed forces it has never once attacked a true independent nation state in recent history. Sure there is the issue of Tibet and the plight of other minority peoples in and around Chinese territory but on the main China has behaved impeccably with regards to fostering broad scale peace in the Asia-Pacific. And for all the huff and puff of the Taiwan Strait tensions, they have yet to fire a shot in anger and so have shown great restraint in a pressurised diplomatic environment over many years. Is China not to be trusted then? What would it gain from attacking its biggest trading partner? Very little one could suggest. China might still be smarting to some extent over the Second World War but enough time and generational change has passed so as any notions of revenge can be easily dismissed. There is just no way that the internationally mild-mannered China of today would start an aggressive action over an economic ally as culturally similar as Japan. Besides, if China attacks Japan it is in effect attacking the Republic of Korea and the United States all at the same time. It is just not even worth considering by any future Chinese government let alone contemporary students, journalists, and philosophers. So there you have it. China is not going to attack anyone in the medium term future, with the possible and arguable exception of Taiwan, and even that is extremely unlikely.

Given this argument why should Japan have any cause for concern over uranium sales from Australia to China? China has long since held nuclear arms. They make no secret of it unlike the South Koreans and probably Japan, and they often through testing openly show the world’s media their military nuclear capacity. Why should China’s nuclear capacity be viewed with any more suspicion than the United States, the United Kingdom, France, or Russia? Why doesn’t Japan constantly worry that one of these nuclear states is going to someday push the ‘fire’ button? As a founding member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty China, unlike North Korea (who withdrew in 2003) is actually allowed to possess nuclear arms and should be treated no differently in this regard to the US or the UK. In short if China wished to launch nuclear weapons on Japan or any other country it already has the capacity. Acquiring tones of uranium from Australian shores cannot add to the already existing threat. So in no way should a state like Japan concern itself over this new regional trade link. Uranium is just another form of mineral energy, like oil, gas, and coal. China invariably runs much of its military with imported oil stocks yet no one seems to care. It is merely the shear horror of nuclear weaponry that sends negative waves throughout international politics. Japan of all nations has the right to feel the most circumspect towards nuclear dealings given the huge sociological scar left on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. How can successive Japanese governments find themselves able to forgive America for the outrageous humanitarian wounds it inflicted upon Japan via the atom bomb whilst simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that it preformed many shocking acts of aggression itself on others such as China? Further, Japan cannot even find it within its heart to respect China with a view to trusting Beijing militarily. Surely some degree of hypocrisy is going on here. The United States has the most number of nuclear weapons out of all the nuclear states, and has even used them against Japan, yet the Japanese are more worried about China. That the two need each other to be healthy economic states for which to trade profitably has slipped Japan’s mind. Are they friends with bullets or enemies with money?

Perhaps Japan is less disturbed by China’s procurement of Australian uranium for perceived military threat as it is concerned that it will somehow loose out in the marketplace. After all, around one third of Japan’s electricity is sourced from about 3000 tons of Australian uranium annually. Could the controversy really be over market forces and international standing? By agreeing to sell to China, potentially a massive customer, Australia has unwittingly increased buyer competition as well as raised the new customer into the same echelon as Japan in the international energy market. Before Japan had only to compete with the US, the European Union, South Korea, and to a lesser extent Canada for the precious mineral from Australia, but throw China into that mix and suddenly the relative stability becomes probable volatility as the other states try to absorb the new presence. To make things even trickier Taiwan has been brought into the picture as it also wishes to seek clean energy sourced from the great southern continent, something Australia has agreed to, facilitated by the United States. This represents pure hypocrisy by the US, Japan, and Republic of Korea troika. It is seemingly ok for Taiwan apparently but “Big Bad Communist China” should not consider providing its citizens with cheap, clean electricity. Japan would surely be less perturbed about Taiwan acquiring Australian uranium but why, because it doesn’t view Taipei as a military threat or an economic threat, or both? Doubtless China is looming as a massive sponge on the international energy market, ready to soak up as much of the world’s mineral resources as possible. The question is will there be enough to go around? Perhaps Japan, the US and other nations disappointed in Australia’s new trade deal with the People’s Republic should spend less time worrying about loosing out in the energy stakes and more time trying to invent more effective and efficient ways to harness renewable resources such as hydro, wind, and solar. If Japan is upset at the thought of missing out on uranium stocks in the future it should put its collective scientific nose to the grindstone and come up with some technology to supplement its own needs. If they felt generous enough they could even transfer the technology to China and others so that we may all stand to benefit in this time of global warming crises. Highly developed nations come off sounding rather trite whining about how developing nations should stay within their station and back off in terms of obtaining precious natural resources. The rich really don’t want to distribute the wealth as evident by America’s rampant occupation of Iraq. If only those in power could learn to share there may well be less friction across the planet. Hopefully these uranium sales come to prove that we can all get along peacefully in the future no matter how difficult it becomes to predict supply trends in the international energy market.

By Bernard Laidlaw

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