The Australian newspaper on Wednesday reported that an Australian government source has privately admitted that Canberra cannot prevent Beijing from using uranium bought from Australia in its nuclear arsenal, should the two countries strike a trade deal. But this minor hitch is not likely to stop sales of uranium to China, because Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) seems to believe, in all seriousness, that China would honor an agreement in which the "use of [Australian uranium] for nuclear weapons, nuclear explosive devices, military nuclear propulsion [or] depleted uranium munitions will be proscribed," as a DFAT spokesperson put it.
Whether or not Aussie uranium goes directly into Chinese warheads -- or whether it is used in power stations in lieu of uranium that goes into Chinese warheads -- makes little difference. Canberra is about to do a deal with a regime with a record of flouting international conventions, notwithstanding the increased oversight that comes with participation in global bodies.
One can almost hear the Australian government's saliva collecting in its mouth at the prospect of selling billions of dollars of uranium from its huge reserves to an eager customer for decades to come.
Never mind that the customer is an unstable Third World despot with a big chip on its shoulder -- and the owner of nuclear warheads and other munitions pointing in potentially inconvenient directions for Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Russia, India and Taiwan, not to mention US bases in the region.
The question that follows is whether Australia can be trusted to do not only the lucrative thing for itself, but also the smart thing for the region when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation. The answer appears to be "no."
We can expect to hear a lot of highfalutin language from Australia in the weeks to come about the need to modernize China and the role "clean" nuclear energy can play in a country desperate for fuel.
Such "global citizen" shtick won't wash. All of this is happening as evidence emerges of tawdry connections between DFAT and the Australian Wheat Board, which is under investigation for feeding massive bribes to Iraqi officials while former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was still in power.
What confidence is there to be had in Canberra now that we know Prime Minister John Howard misled the public about the dangers of non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and lectured on the moral certitude of an invasion, at the same time as people with close government connections -- with possible government knowledge -- were spreading bags of filthy lucre across Baghdad and beyond?
In China's case, Canberra has been setting itself up for a sublime strategic fall for some time, with Washington increasingly concerned that Australia might act in a manner that would compromise regional stability, and US strategy in particular.
Were it not so preoccupied with "homeland security" and the grim situation in Iraq, perhaps Washington could better recognize the folly of its deputy sheriff in Asia profiting handsomely from the potential acceleration of China's nuclear militarization.
"She'll be right, mate," is the cry from an Australian who would seek to soothe the tempers of people around him and shut down an embarrassing conversation.