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.
Support to U.S. nuclear extended deterrence at the bilateral and global level has also undergirded Australia’s nuclear policy under successive Coalition and Labor governments. Rather than damaging or inhibiting Australia’s credibility with respect to nuclear diplomacy, extended nuclear deterrence as part of the bilateral security alliance with the United States has assured Canberra’s regional neighbors of its nuclear abstinence and provided it with the opportunity to develop an activist nonproliferation agenda. How claiming nuclear weapons status for Australia would help Australia further its arms control agenda, let alone “further persuading countries in the region to exercise nuclear restraint,” therefore remains mysterious.
It also ignores that Australia’s commitment to the global nonproliferation regime has been crucially shaped by an enduring national security interest in limiting nuclear proliferation in its immediate region. This interest was a major factor in Australia’s deliberations regarding membership of the NPT in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with policy makers focusing on the role of nuclear proliferation in Southeast Asia in presenting arguments both for and against Australian accession to the Treaty. This genuine concern with the strategic consequences of regional nuclear proliferation stood in contrast to other Western U.S. allies, who perceived the NPT as a mechanism to manage the Cold War. Australia’s decision to sign and ratify the Treaty as a non–nuclear weapons state, and its subsequent support for the development of strict nuclear safeguards and consolidation of the nonproliferation regime, were seen as important steps to proliferation-proofing Australia’s region.
This remained a major shaper of Australian nuclear policy and became a major factor in driving Australia’s activist nonproliferation diplomacy. In other words, Leah and Rovere’s claim that “the nations in Southeast Asia will see Australia as a more capable strategic partner and deepen cooperation” completely overturns the judgment of successive Australian governments about the regional effect of Australian nuclear weapon acquisition.
Unlike a number of other similarly positioned middle powers, Australia has never seriously questioned the legitimacy of the nuclear arsenals of the five NWS recognized under the NPT. This tendency reflects the view that nuclear weapons are a stabilizing factor in international politics—particularly through the mechanism of deterrence—as long as they are wielded by “responsible” great powers. This vision has at times been challenged , most notably during the years of Paul Keating’s prime ministership (1991-1996), by a “disarmer” vision that sees nuclear weapons as “order destroyers” rather than “order builders” and thus inimical to Australian strategic and security interests. Despite this challenge, successive Australian governments of both major political persuasions have ultimately structured much of the country’s nuclear policy around this view. While this is not an argument against Australian acquisition of nuclear weapons as such, it reinforces that Australia ultimately had confidence in the stability of nuclear (extended) deterrence, and is very conscious of systemic risks of proliferation—neither of which could be adequately addressed by the naïve assumption that Australia could acquire nuclear weapons without consequences for the NPT regime as a whole.
Ultimately our study suggests that since the late 1970s Australia has maintained a bipartisan consensus that Australia’s security would be enhanced, and not limited, by a functioning global nonproliferation regime that helps keep nuclear weapons from its own region. U.S. END, while providing an “insurance policy” in the event of a deleterious deterioration of the regional security environment, has also enabled Canberra to pursue an activist nonproliferation diplomacy. Nuclear weapons acquisition, contrary to Leah and Rovere’s position, would unravel this to Australia’s significant detriment.
Dr Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, ANU; Dr Stephan Frühling is Senior Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU; and Andrew O’Neil is Professor and Head of the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University. They are the authors of Australia’s Nuclear Policy: Reconciling Strategic, Economic and Normative Interests , (London: Ashgate, 2015).