China could sign uranium deal with Australia

BEIJING - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao could sign uranium trade agreements with Australia in a visit early next month intended to highlight Beijing's deepening political and economic bonds with the long-time US ally.

Howard said at a press conference today the deal was moving forward.

"We're making good progress. It's possible that the discussions could be satisfactorily concluded so that something could be said or signed when the Chinese premier visits Australia next week," Howard said.

"It's possible. I don't want to say that will happen, but it is quite possible."

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with Australia said the two sides had revised two atomic agreements that could be signed when Wen visits from April 1 to 4.

One is a general pact on peaceful nuclear power, and the other a more detailed deal on uranium exploration and exploitation.

"Developing peaceful nuclear cooperation will help to further enrich and deepen energy cooperation between the two countries," the official, Liu Jieyi, told reporters at a news conference.

He said any atomic cooperation would be "limited to peaceful objectives alone and will accept International Atomic Energy Agency supervision".

Energy-thirsty China plans to invest about 400 billion yuan ($82.89 billion) in building around 30 nuclear reactors by 2020, bringing its installed nuclear capacity to 40 gigawatts.

And Australia, with its reserves of uranium, coal, gas and other resources fuelling China's growth, has increasingly embraced Beijing, even as the United States has questioned China's military and economic ambitions.

Australia has more than 40 per cent of the world's known uranium reserves, and has three working uranium mines.

Liu would not be directly drawn on whether he saw significant differences between how Canberra and Washington regard Beijing. But he suggested China welcomed Australia's generally cooperative approach.

"What all countries should do is enhance trust and cooperation and encourage common security," he said.

Canberra and Washington still shared a great many goals, but Australia's deepening engagement with Beijing had set it apart from Washington, said Alan Dupont, an expert on Asian security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

"For the first time in our modern existence, Australia is feeling the weight and power of China," he said.

"Whereas Americans at both the elite and popular level are more inclined to see China as a long-term threat, Australians see it as a more benign power."

Australia has a trade surplus with China, and in 2005 trade between the two countries reached $27.25 billion, an increase of 33.6 per cent from the previous year, according to Chinese statistics.

Liu, director-general for American and Oceanic Affairs, said the atomic agreements would make clear that both sides were "willing to open up cooperation in this area," but he did not mention any specific projects. He said Wen and Australian Prime Minister John Howard are also likely to hold a joint news conference.

Wen would be accompanied on his trip by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, Commerce Minister Bo Xilai and chief of the National Development and Reform Commission, Ma Kai, who is responsible for energy development, Liu said.

Wen will also visit Fiji, where he will attend a forum of Pacific Island countries, before traveling to New Zealand and Cambodia.

- REUTERS

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