It has been fifty years since Australia made a formal decision not to acquire nuclear weapons. However, since then the regional geo-political environment has starkly changed, and is likely to become more turbulent over the next few decades, as balances are changing.
US reliance as an alley, and the inferred nuclear protection Australia has been given is uncertain in the future. The competitive strategic positions of China and the US will change drastically over the next decade. US interests under different presidencies are also fluid. Australia is now in the frontline of a strategically changing region, where Australia's self-perception as a middle power has vanished with some regional military forces much more potent than Australia.
Australia's bilateral relationship with its largest trading partner China has greatly deteriorated over recent times, with few signs of improving. Australia is alone in its trade dispute with China, ironically with the US benefitting from Chinese embargoes on Australian goods. Minister to minister communications has long been suspended, as China is decoupling Australia.
There are a number of potential trouble spots in the region. These include Chinese intentions over Taiwan, North Korea's acquisition of long-range nuclear weapon delivery systems, and a potentially unstable nuclear Pakistan with Taliban designs of creating a Pashtun Taliban Caliphate in Pakistan.
The nuclear equilibrium in the region is shifting. China's rise in military force is prompting countries like India to upgrade its nuclear arsenal to much more powerful thermonuclear weapons.
Probably of greatest importance is Indonesian nuclear weapon development intentions. Former Indonesian army four-star general and minister for maritime affairs and investment has been reported as saying Indonesia is underestimated because it doesn't have nuclear weapons. Indonesia's development of facilities capable of manufacturing weapons grade materials are well underway. A nuclear Indonesia with a growing Wahhabi-Salafism in Indonesia may one day leave Australia with a government to the north, vastly different to what exists now.
Australia needs to discuss strategy options in the new realities it faces in the region. There needs to be re-assessments of a post-Afghanistan US alley, very close neighbours to Australia which are adopting a placating response to China, a super-power that is bullying Australia, and the likelihood of a potential nuclear armed neighbour.
Australia's past stance on nuclear weapons
Since the early 1970s, Australian Governments have been strongly supportive of nuclear non-proliferation under the definitions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed by the McMahon Government in 1970 and ratified by the incoming Labor Whitlam Government in 1973. Australia's anti-nuclear position was even strengthened under Liberal-Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, as the "green/anti-nuclear" movement was quickly growing in Australia 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.
Paradoxically, every prime minister supported to various degrees, the development of uranium mining and export as an economic driver. The Fraser and later Rudd Governments argued that uranium exports should be used as a means to strengthen non-proliferation by demanding safeguards from customers.
Uranium exports have been controversial, with strong domestic protests over the years, governments trampling over indigenous wills, and deep party rifts within the Labor movement. Yet on the issue on non-proliferation, Australia had always been at the forefront in international forums.
Prior to the 1970s, Australia took a different view towards nuclear non-proliferation. In 1944, Australia supplied uranium ore to the Manhattan Project. Australian physicist Mark Oliphant played a major role in pushing the atomic bomb program in both Britain and the US before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
14 posts so far.