Over the past century, Australia has proven itself to be America’s most dependable military ally. From the ANZAC days during the time of the Great Wars to fighting alongside U.S. Marines in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, Australia has always been steadfast in its dealings with Washington, which means that it could be time for the U.S. to do something more for its loyal ally.
Recent events in the South China Sea and the ensuing competition between China and the United States have put Australia in a very precarious and uncomfortable position. Canberra cannot afford to provoke its greatest trading partner in China and at the same time does not want to alienate the U.S. Australia can ill-afford to take sides in the case of a potential U.S.-China conflict, and for this reason, it has kept its options open – for the time being.
Due to its geographical location and the demographic imbalances (almost all of Australia’s population is concentrated in a half-dozen major cities), Australia is vulnerable to long-range missile attacks, including missiles that can carry nuclear payloads. A small number of warheads can thoroughly exploit Australia’s vulnerabilities.
If a conflict between the United States and China gains momentum, it would not be wrong to assume that Beijing might target Australia with its long-range nuclear missiles in a bid to showcase to Washington its nuclear capabilities and willingness to conduct nuclear strikes over intercontinental ranges. And retaliating on the behalf of Australia would be a signal for the initiation of a full-scale nuclear war.
For this reason and the fact that the concept of credible minimum deterrence is non-existent, Australia knows that it cannot afford to enter into a conflict with the world’s most populous nuclear power. Despite strong support from the Untied States, Australia still needs to tackle its vulnerabilities from long-range nuclear attacks and has to start working on developing a reliable and robust nuclear deterrent.
Trick to acquiring nuclear weapons
This all easier said than done though, and the idea would be a controversial one if it is implemented. As a non-nuclear weapon state and a party to the NPT, Australia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would mean that it would be extremely difficult to convince the likes of Japan and South Korea that they shouldn’t do something similar, which would indeed threaten the nuclear non-proliferation regime. However, there is a way past this view since Australia enjoys a unique legal status when it comes to acquiring or not acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Currently, there are five Nuclear-Weapon States that fall under the NPT (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China). According to Article IX.3 of the NPL, a country may accede to the treaty as a Nuclear-Weapon State if that state “manufactured and exploded a nuclear device prior to January 1, 1967.” During the 1950s and 1960s, Australia played host to several nuclear tests conducted by the United Kingdom. Those tests were conducted on Australian territory, and Australian scientists and military personnel actively participated in those tests. Moreover, the Australian government financially supported these tests, and it is very likely that some explosions used fissile material that was provided by Australia.
Today, many policymakers in Australia believe that the country’s national security imperative compels it to acquire nuclear weapons and hence boast an independent nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the fact that Australia’s transformation into a nuclear power does not undermine the treaty (NPT) means that Canberra has a legal justification to do it in the coming years.
Moreover, a nuclear armed Australia means that the United States would have an ally boasting several strategic advantages. It would further embolden Australia in its quest to oppose Chinese movements in the Asia Pacific region and would also create the type of nuclear deterrence in Southeast Asia which, at the moment, it cannot.
Opinion on nuclear disarmament changing
Since the turn of the 21st Century, Australia has been a champion for nuclear disarmament, but now it is clear that the nation’s viewpoint is changing in a dramatic manner. At present, Australia completely relies on Washington for its security guarantee through the notion of an “extended nuclear deterrence.”
The time when Australians conceived no external threat or nuclear neighbor to warrant weapons ownership is long gone. Times are changing, and there is a feeling among policymakers and analysts that it is high time for Australia to boast an independent nuclear deterrent on its own and stop relying on extended nuclear deterrence with the hope that it will take care of its problems.
However, these are waters that need to be chartered with extreme caution. Australia may have more than enough reasons to acquire nuclear weapons, but it should also be mindful of the fact that its acquisition could potentially initiate a regional arms race which will add further to the already escalating situation due to the events that are unfolding in the South China Sea.