Yes, Australia Still Needs Nukes
An argument in favor of Aussie atom bombs
In the wake of our recommendation that the United States revise its interpretation of Australia’s nuclear rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, three Australian defense academics — Michael Clarke, Stephan Frühling and Andrew O’Neil — have responded to the strategic elements of our article.
Their critique is intriguing for a number of reasons, not least because on a close reading they appear to agree with our analysis.
Clarke, Frühling and O’Neil do not offer a view on whether Australia should acquire nuclear weapons. What they do say is that – quite apart from the NPT – Australia will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons in the near future. Our own piece says this very explicitly, and Clarke, Frühling and O’Neil helpfully expand on some of the reasons why.
Clarke, Frühling and O’Neil only contend our conclusions in a couple of places. First, they take issue with our suggestion that many “Australians believe entering into conflict with the world’s most populous nuclear power [China], for any reason and under any circumstance, is unthinkable.” They argue that “available polling [does not support] such an assertion.”
This is not correct. Every year Australia’s principal foreign policy think tank, the Lowy Institute, undertakes and publishes a rigorous poll of Australians’ attitudes towards a range of foreign and strategic policy matters. In 2015, 80 percent of Australians said that the alliance with the United States is “important” or “very important” to Australia’s national security.
When you factor in China, however, this picture changes dramatically. In the same poll, a staggering 84 percent of respondents said that Australia should remain neutral in any conflict between China and Japan. Only 11 percent said that Australia should support Japan.
But here’s the kicker. In the 2013 Lowy Poll, a mere 38 percent agreed that Australia should “act in accordance with our security alliance with the United States even if it means supporting U.S. military action in Asia, for example, in a conflict between China and Japan.” A paltry 12 percent said they strongly agreed — with 29 percent strongly disagreeing.
This polling also reflects the plethora of Australian books and publications in recent years that question the value of the Australia-New Zealand-United States alliance in light of China’s rise. From this, the only reasonable conclusion is that many Australians are very pensive about being drawn into a conflict between China and the United States, and that in present circumstances many would be willing to sacrifice the alliance in order to avoid it.
To reiterate, our policy recommendation is for the United States to recognize Australia’s right under the NPT to become a Nuclear Weapon State, or NWS. This is not to say that Australia will or should seek to become a NWS in the near future. The question is not about how the NPT has been interpreted, but rather how the United States should interpret the NPT in future.
To explain why this is important, readers might consider the following hypothetical scenario.
In this instance, is it better for non-proliferation globally if Australia were to withdraw from the NPT and then acquire nuclear weapons, knowing the United States would refuse to leave Australia isolated?
Or, alternately, is it preferable if the NPT were interpreted in such a way that provided for an exception that is unique to Australia, but otherwise leaves the current regime unchanged?
We would contend, strongly, that in this scenario it would be better for the whole world for the latter to be applied, not the former. Moreover, we feel that circumstances are fast evolving in such manner as to precipitate an abrupt change to America’s thinking on this issue.
In our original piece we asserted that Australia’s role in the British nuclear program enabled it to claim nuclear status under the NPT, specifically that Australia met the IX.3 requirement that a party must have “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to Jan. 1, 1967.” As we expected, this caused conniptions across the nuclear policy establishment. But in our view this is not because our contention is objectively wrong, but rather because it is not well liked — although critics insist otherwise.
Everyone agrees that the crux of the matter lies in the definition of the phrase “manufactured and exploded.” Australia having “exploded” a nuclear device is straightforward. Governments are accountable for what occurs within their own borders that they willfully consent to. Australia’s government invited and facilitated the testing of nuclear weapons on its territory with full knowledge and concurrence that this was occurring. Therefore, Australia exploded a nuclear device.
The real contention rests on the meaning of “manufactured.” Australia contributed facilities, money, personnel, equipment, and very likely, fissile material directly to the British program for the express purpose of nuclear weapons production. In our view this exceeds any standard that can be applied to the term “manufactured” in international law.
As an illustrative analogy, imagine that a person is arrested and accused of manufacturing narcotics. The accused confesses that the drugs were tested out of their house, that they provided money and people in assistance, and also that they supplied highly specialized chemicals expressly for narcotics production. Yet they insist they are innocent of manufacturing. This is what critics of our NPT interpretation are contending with regard to Australia and nuclear weapons.
To their credit, even implacable critics recognize that Australia’s contribution to the British arsenal was “significant.” But to underscore just how significant, consider Britain’s infamous “Letters of Last Resort.” Each new prime minister provides sealed, handwritten orders for what actions Trident submarine commanders are to take in the event that the U.K. government has been incapacitated through nuclear attack.
One option civil servants provide incoming prime ministers is for British nuclear forces to place themselves under Australian command. Given that only the sitting British prime minister knows the contents of the Letters of Last Resort, procedures are presumably in place for Australia to assume control of British nuclear forces should that grim eventuality arise.
It is also important to understand that our contentions are neither legally nor strategically absent from the thinking at the time Australia joined the NPT. With respect to Dr. Lyon’s find, the quote proves that Australian officials were aware prior to joining the NPT that our interpretation is possible. It is clearly of sufficient interest for Dr. Lyon to make specific reference to it in what is an otherwise lengthy dossier, and proves beyond doubt that we are not retrospectively applying something new.
Moreover, Australian officials appear to have conveyed this to American interlocutors at that time. In 1968 an American cable reported that Australian officials had “studied the draft NPT most thoroughly and were quite alert to several aspects of the treaty, the interpretation of which could lead to controversy. The political rationalization of these officials was that Australia needed to be in a position to manufacture nuclear weapons rapidly.” What we are suggesting does indeed court controversy; however, no legal argument unbeknownst to officials at the time is being put forward by us today.
This is also true strategically. In 1967 U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara said that it would be “entirely natural” and “an obvious thing to happen” for Australia to acquire nuclear weapons in response to Chinese proliferation. In fact, McNamara’s vision was to establish a collective nuclear organization for the Far East, “starting with Australia and The Philippines.”
There was even a suggestion within the U.S. government of using Australia for high-yield weapons testing, something Pres. Lyndon Johnson decided against himself. Adrian Fisher, another contemporary senior U.S. official, commented that he would not have recommended offering security assurances to Australia, including any assurances to respond with nuclear weapons to an attack, if China had already possessed a nuclear capability.
This brings us to the point made by Clarke, Frühling and O’Neil that Australia might reconsider its nuclear status if “the world completely changed”. Yet the world has already completely changed from when Australia ratified in the NPT in the 1970s, as has Australia’s strategic circumstances within it.
In the early 1970s, Australia’s principal economic and strategic partners were the same, China and the Soviet Union were implacable foes, the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific was unchallenged, the economic gap between western democracies and the rest of the world was widening, and the epicenter of strategic competition was distant from Australia’s strategic neighborhood.
Today, in every single respect, the opposite is true. As Clarke, Frühling and O’Neil well know, the strategic balance in the Western Pacific is shifting at breakneck speed. This makes the status quo utterly untenable, and we Australians do a grave disservice to our American friends — and ourselves — by continuing to suggest otherwise.
Fewer than 20 years ago the U.S. president parked the 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait in response to Chinese saber-rattling. That will never happen again. At that time, America’s economy was nine times larger than China’s. Now, China will eclipse the United States as the world’s leading economic power within a decade.
Many appear to be in denial about China’s rise and what it means. In a way, that’s understandable. Both the United States and Australia are fairly young, and are accustomed to the post-industrial age way of things. But for China, America’s dominance in the Pacific is but a blip in the long annals of the Middle Kingdom, and now things are rapidly returning to what China perceives as the rightful long-standing norm.
To be unambiguously clear, China poses a direct challenge to American primacy. It is determined to expel the United States from Asia, is willing to incur significant costs and risks in pursuit of this outcome, and is rapidly developing the capabilities necessary to achieve this objective. Moreover, China’s relationship with Russia is now an alliance in all but name, with bilateral ties closer than they ever were during the Cold War.
If the United States is to have any hope of surviving as a superpower in this Asian century, policymakers need to stop mouthing platitudes like “responsible stakeholder” and get serious about America’s interests and priorities. The scale of this challenge, which is already massive, will soon dwarf that posed by the former Soviet Union.
To be fair, the reality of this is not lost on every American thinker – Robert Haddick’s recent book Fire on the Water is probably the most clear-sighted and well organized discourse so far published on this subject. But while this may be understood well enough over at U.S. Pacific Command, Washington is still obsessing over medieval jihadists in the Middle East.
The truth is that few in Australia give any practical credence to Extended Nuclear Deterrence, or END. Australians pay lip service to END only because long-range missile threats have historically been marginal, but not wholly absent — and because it assists the United States manage alliances with others who depend on END more heavily. Support for END is something that Australia contributes to America, not the other way around.
There are several factors contributing towards this assessment of END. But the main one is that to swap New York or Los Angeles for Sydney or Melbourne would be idiocy, and we don’t think Americans are stupid.
As strategic competition with China intensifies, the risk posed to Australia by long-range missiles is fast becoming acute. The nuclear threat posed to Australia is real. China also delights in exposing the United States as a paper tiger, and therefore it is possible, in extremis, for China to lob a nuke Australia’s way just to prove the point.
Washington’s answer to this has been Ballistic Missile Defense. But if Australians don’t put any truck in END, imagine how they feel about the efficacy against China of an intercontinental BMD system. For a number of years now, Communiqués from the annual AUSMIN Consultations have made mild reference to possible Australian involvement in BMD in the Asia-Pacific. This year references to BMD were dropped.
The bottom line is this. There is no chance, no chance whatsoever, that Australia is going to allow itself to be dragged into a war in the Pacific against a nuclear-armed superpower while being vulnerable to nuclear attack. End of story.
So to conclude, it is worth referring back to Stephan Frühling’s assessment of the circumstances in which Australia may seek nuclear weapons in the future. He outlines three conditions that would have to be met:
- The existence of a major threat to Australia;
- A loss of confidence in U.S. guarantees; and,
- Allied acquiescence to an Australian nuclear program.
The first two conditions are already being foreshadowed, and their transpiring may give rise to the third. On its own, recognition by the United States that Australia has the right under the NPT to become a NWS does not equate to “allied acquiescence to an Australian nuclear program,” but just acknowledging that Australia may revisit its nuclear options in future strengthens America’s hand in dealing with China, just as Japan’s threshold status does today.
This is all in America’s own interest. Given that protection from nuclear attack is a pre-condition for Australia going “all-in” with the United States in a strategic contest that will define the course of world history, flexibility by the United States with regard to Australia’s NPT status will help modernize the ANZUS alliance and position it for the 21st century.