6 Reasons Why Australia Won't Get Nuclear Weapons

Despite higher tensions with China, decades of Australian policy won't reverse quite so easily.

Christine Leah and Crispin Rovere argued in their recent article that “In a high-intensity conflict between the United States and China, it is conceivable that China may target Australia with long-range nuclear missiles as a step up the escalation ladder,” and that “[i]n this eventuality, extended nuclear deterrence would hardly be credible.”

From this tautology—because in case of an attack, extended deterrence would of course have failed—they deduce that the “most effective means” for Canberra to dissuade Beijing from such an escalatory step, and to assist the United States in Asia, is to “develop or acquire its own reliable long-range nuclear deterrent.” They continue that while “many would consider this a bad idea” (as such a step would potentially have proliferation knock-on effects with other U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea), “the nations in Southeast Asia will see Australia as a more capable strategic partner and deepen cooperation.” Moreover, Leah and Rovere assert that Australia would be “legally entitled” to nuclear weapons given its role in British nuclear tests before the signature of the NPT, and assert that if the U.S. would “publicly recognize” this, Australia could then “leverage its position in present nuclear arms control negotiations, further persuading countries in the region to exercise nuclear restraint.”

These are bold claims, and ultimately neither supported by sufficient evidence nor persuasive as strategic propositions. Moreover, we find that they ignore the strategic reasons that have led to Australia’s bipartisan consensus on nuclear policy since the Fraser Government of the 1970s, which are the major findings of our recently published history of Australia’s engagement in the strategic, economic and normative domains of nuclear policy since 1945.

Leah and Rovere claim that because of the threat of nuclear attack, “many Australians believe entering into conflict with the world’s most populous nuclear power, for any reason and under any circumstance, is unthinkable”—but neither extensive public consultation, as part of Australia’s Defence White Paper in 2014, nor available polling supports such an assertion. This undercuts their central argument why Australian acquisition of nuclear weapons might be in the interest of the U.S., while others have already challenged the proposition that Australia had a legal right to do so within the NPT.

Importantly, Australian governments did not endeavor to acquire an indigenous nuclear weapons capability at any point in the past; but they did seek to keep the option open right up until the shelving of the Jervis Bay project (a proposal to construct a plutonium-producing heavy water reactor) in 1971. Indeed, much of Australia’s nuclear policy between 1945 and 1972 could be characterized as a strategy of “nuclear hedging,” whereby it sought to keep the country out of international commitments that were perceived as having the potential to constrain Australia’s nuclear weapons options down the track.

The 1950s and 1960s were most challenging decades for Australian security, including conflict with Indonesia, expansion of Communism in Southeast Asia and nuclear proliferation to China. Australian policy makers have often been anxious about the credibility of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence (END) guarantees, particularly at times of strategic or geopolitical flux, such as in the aftermath of French defeat in Vietnam, Britain’s “retreat” east of Suez or the Nixon Doctrine. In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia was very conscious it was under direct nuclear threat from the Soviet Union.

If the world completely changed, Australia’s nuclear policy might do so as well. But overturning the arguments against nuclear weapons acquisition by Australia requires more than postulating one scenario where Australia might come under nuclear attack (and one that is rather at odds with the logic of Chinese nuclear doctrine and force structure, at that)—after all, the possibility of a major threat to Australia, including from nuclear weapons, is hardly a new condition.

Rather, there are very good strategic reasons that have led to the high degree of continuity in Australian nuclear policy, since the Fraser government laid down the parameters for the export of uranium in 1977: strict adherence to the NPT, a commitment to the application of full-scope safeguards over Australian nuclear transfers, and diplomatic efforts to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime at all levels. Despite some inevitable variations in emphasis, governments of all political shades have made this a bipartisan orthodoxy since 1977.