Australia: Next Nuclear Weapon Power in Indo-Pacific?

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
July 28, 2019


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No one could imagine that one of the strongest members of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, Australia, would witness a national debate on the need for developing nuclear weapon capability. However, the unimaginable has become visible.

This debate has been raised in the backdrop of China’s appearance as a very authoritative naval power in the Indo-Pacific, Chinese claim of sovereignty over a large chunk of South China Sea and belligerent construction of military facilities in some islands, powerlessness of the United States to prevent China from doing so and at the same time rising incidents of Cold Confrontations between the United States and China.

For close to seven decades, the United States has been the security guarantor to Australia against any external threat. Australia has almost always participated in US-led military operations in third countries both during and after the Cold War. The United States also maintains military facilities in Australia. The trepidation in Australia now is about reliability of the US nuclear and conventional security umbrella, especially in the wake of the Trump Administration’s approach towards alliances. President Trump has made unpalatable remarks on US allies, including NATO, Japan, and South Korea. Trump’s demands for more defense burden-sharing from allies have not gone down well with many alliance partners.

However, Trump policy alone is not the topic of concern. The simultaneous rise of China, whose influence has spread across the Indo-Pacific is also a cause for disquiet for Australians. For the last few decades, Australia has greatly benefitted from the opening of the China market, and both in terms of trade and investment, the two countries have found themselves to be invaluable economic partners. However, Canberra’s concerns are twofold: first, China, the economic partner, cannot be a strategic ally; and secondly, the traditional alliance partner, the United States, has been on loggerheads with China and the game of chicken that these two partners of Australia have been playing could lead to escalation of conflict. Canberra is not able to figure out its desirable stand on Sino-US Cold Confrontations.

Thus, a debate has started in Australia about how to defend the country in such scenarios, and one option that is under discussion is the need for going nuclear. There is no unanimity of views on the nuclear option in the strategic community in Australia. Some think that Australia does not have any civilian nuclear energy program and that it has neither the uranium enrichment facility nor the reactors that produce plutonium and thus it is unrealistic to think about developing a nuclear arsenal. Others argue that nuclear option is just too high-priced and not the best alternative to sustaining the alliance partnership with the United States.

Then there are those who believe that the country has ample uranium reserve, and technological competence to start a nuclear energy program can be acquired with little difficulty so long as the country retains its membership in the NPT, CTBT, and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group; and that it can keep its option open on weaponizing its capability as and when indispensable.

There is a counter to this line of argument as well. Nuclear energy is not currently a cost-effective clean energy option for Australia. People may not support such a policy. However, the Australian Energy Minister has stated that there is no decision on it yet and that means choice to start such a program is not closed. And if that happens, no one can be sure that Australia will not emerge as a nuclear weapon state in the future!

The big questions are: if Canberra starts a nuclear energy program in the backdrop of the current debate, will Washington back it? Will the Trump Administration explicitly oppose it? President Trump, at one time, asked Japan and South Korea to defend themselves; and it must not have gone unnoticed in Australia. But Trump surely would not allow that to happen, because when allies turn nuclear powers, their dependence on the US may disappear. And thus Washington may be in the forefront of opposing even a civil nuclear energy program in Australia.

The other questions are: Can Washington prevent Australia from doing so? Will France support it for commercial reasons? Will Russia back Australia for strategic reasons? How may China respond to such a scenario? One thing is certain that any nuclear energy program initiated in Australia will be a suspect. The current nuclear debate in that country has uncovered the Australian thinking. If Australia lifts the nuclear moratorium of the late 1990s, there will be a strong possibility that another nuclear weapon state in the Indo-Pacific will ascend. It will inevitably alter the strategic landscape of the region. And more seriously, it will punch holes in the nuclear proliferation regime.

At the moment, the Trump Administration has remained ineffective in encouraging North Korea to denuclearize. It’s stubborn Iran sanctions policy may tempt Iran to think hard about its nuclear option. Indian policymakers must take note of all these developments and factor them in strategic scenario building in the Indo-Pacific region.