By: Murray Hunter

Since the early 1970s, Australian governments have strongly supported nuclear non-proliferation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by the McMahon government in 1970 and ratified in 1973. But two reactions to recent events by the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could hint of a change in thinking.

First, Canberra’s tradition of supporting non-proliferation in international forums has been broken. Australia failed to support the recent United Nations resolution to outlaw nuclear weapons on the floor of the General Assembly last month to the surprise and astonishment of many interested in the issue. Second, Turnbull failed to give the Melbourne based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) director Beatrice Fihn a congratulatory call after she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This seems significant in what can be considered Austria’s first Nobel Peace Prize.

In addition Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s rhetoric about nuclear weapons, soon about to spread through the region indicates a change in Canberra’s world view. Turnbull himself with US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Manila on Nov. 13 to issue a bristling statement over increasing Chinese regional power and a promise to focus on the North Korean missile situation. 

This is not yet a policy shift, but perhaps recognition that nuclear weapons for Australia may need to be an option. However, even if nuclear weapons were to be an option, the road ahead for any government would be rocky, if not almost fatal without a need the public would accept. 

The regional environment has changed dramatically over the last few years. China is rising rapidly economically and will become the world’s largest economy very soon. Beijing’s military capacity is rising in accordance with her aspirations, and is asserting itself in the South China Sea, a region it has historically seen as its sphere of influence.

Many pundits would claim that these actions should be expected with China’s re-emergence. However, with this expansion of Chinese forces, the balance of power between China vis a vis the US is rapidly shifting.

Any change would be a dramatic repudiation of the McMahon government’s decision to forego nuclear participation. Australia’s anti-nuclear position was even strengthened under Liberal-Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, during the growing “green/anti-nuclear” movement at the time. With the exception of Prime Minister John Howard, who saw a changing Asia-Pacific nuclear balance, subsequent prime ministers Hawke, Keating, Rudd, and Gillard also strongly followed the non-proliferation line.

However, there is a new equilibrium that the region should be able to get comfortable with. Many are. However China’s rise in military force is prompting countries like India to upgrade its nuclear arsenal to much more powerful thermonuclear weapons.

The unstable part of the equation is North Korea’s development of thermonuclear weapons and delivery systems which may prompt nuclear latent states like Japan and South Korea change their status. This would put the Asia-Pacific on a par with Europe in regards to the nuclear of nuclear players.

Another important issue of the strategic equation is Australia’s relative decline in military capacity against other countries within the region. Australia’s ability to project itself militarily is almost non-existent. The country’s prestige as a ‘cold war’ middle power is a long gone myth regionally. Here, it is more Australian prestige rather than security that is of threat.

The US extended nuclear deterrent (END) is another myth Canberra must contend with. Unlike Canada which is a part of Continental North America and covered by the US nuclear umbrella, Australia is an isolated country in another part of the world. The US sound surveillance system (SOSUS) which is a nuclear submarine early warning system is not deployed around Australia’s continual shelf. In addition, Australia should learn the lesson of US involvement in the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, where the US went primarily neutral. Australia cannot depend on direct US military assistance in any future potential regional military conflict.

It should also be said here, that Japan and South Korea pay enormous amounts of money for US protection. Australia has been expecting to get it virtually free for too long.

Australia’s capability to develop nuclear weapons is better than most. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, replacing the AAEC in 1987 is an internationally renowned centre of nuclear research. Australia has also developed some advanced indigenous uranium refining technology, the SILEX process using lasers, which is much more economical and cheaper than the traditional centrifuge technology.

Australia has large reserves of uranium and a stockpile of semi-refined uranium at Lucas heights. The country also has a certain degree of bomb-making expertise that it gained from participation with Britain in the nuclear tests during the 1950s and its own endeavors back in the 1970s. Australia has the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter, Boeing F/A-18a & B Hornet, and the F/A 18F Super Hornet as capable medium range delivery systems.  Australia also has a range of nuclear capable cruise missiles which can be launched from aircraft, ships, and submarines.

However, this doesn’t mean developing a nuclear arsenal would be an easy project for any future government. The project would be a major one requiring special budgeting, which would mean curtailing other expenditure. This could be very difficult in today’s economic environment.

In addition, public opinion would most likely be against the idea, unless a major threat was collectively perceived. North Korean threats against Australia were not enough. The establishment of Japanese and South Korean nuclear arsenals would not be enough. Maybe an event closer to home such as Indonesia developing nuclear weapons would change public opinion.

Maybe that might not even be enough. It may take something drastic like a nuclear Indonesia and some sort of Iranian like revolution taking place before public opinion would shift towards favoring a nuclear deterrent. This is an unlikely scenario in the short term, but not so remote in the medium to long term. Acting after the event however would just be too late.

In the absence of some form of threat to security, public debate would probably be one of the most heated and passionate within Australian society. This would be reflected in the finely balanced Parliament. This debate would have the potential to bring down the government.

In the absence of bi-partisanship between the major parties on the issue, a Labor Government on current policy would firmly squash any potential nuclear program. It may not even need a change of government, a change of leader within the Liberal Party maybe enough to force the cancellation of any nuclear program.

The nuclear weapon debate is an issue politicians can use to gain power, which would prevent Australia developing nuclear weapons. That’s the dynamics of a democratic system. If France or Britain had to develop nuclear weapons from scratch today, it would almost be impossible through their democratic processes.

Even if Australia decided to go ahead with a nuclear program, tacit approval would be needed from the United States. The US has for years been hedging on this. However with the Trump view of the world (a view that will almost certainly for economic reasons outlive Trump), the US may support allies in the Asia-Pacific taking more responsibility for their own defence. The proposal by Australia to develop its own nuclear arsenal may bring big offers of concessions from the US, where a future administration may offer alternatives.

An indigenous Australian nuclear arsenal would allow Australia to be more independent in foreign policy, something that is needed to handle the changing China-US balance in the region. It would most probably bring the respect of China and free Australia from the need to unquestionably follow the US line. Its participation in Iraq after all was a disaster that Australia could have avoided. Both Australian bureaucrats and government see this.

France is a precedent in Europe which follows an independent foreign policy, and Israel is a precedent in the MENA, where it could be argued that the country has been able to survive in a hostile region due to the deterrents it has in place.

This not an argument that the Turnbull Government has made a complete turn towards a nuclear hedging policy. Rather the Turnbull Government understands that the possibility of an independent nuclear arsenal may be an option in the near to medium future. It could be preparing the way.

It’s the responsibility of defense and the public service to prepare these positions and the government of the day to consider them. The concept of an Australian nuclear deterrent will  inevitably be discussed more in the media in the near future, particularly when major events favor such a response.