Facing a wobbly ally in the United States and an increasingly bellicose China, Australia’s military strategists are cautiously debating whether the country needs to consider developing its own nuclear deterrent.
For a long time, the country’s defense forces had relatively little to worry about.
A century-old alliance with the United States brought bankable security guarantees, while mineral exports to China ensured 28 recession-free years at home.
But Donald Trump’s limited regard for alliances and Xi Jinping’s quest for primacy in the Pacific have put both pillars of Australian security in doubt.
“Far from being in a strategic backwater, Australia is very much now a state in the front line,” said Malcolm Davis, a military planner who has long called for a rethink in Australia’s defense.
So far the response from Canberra has been cautious: trying to preserve the alliance with the United States while trading with the world’s rising economic power.
But Hugh White – former adviser to prime ministers, and a doyen of Canberra military analysts – believes it is time to get off the fence.
Amid arcane discussions about strategic autonomy, interests and capabilities, his book How to Defend Australia, published this month, has ignited a firestorm of debate with one simple question: “What about nuclear weapons?”
White – a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University – does not advocate for or against nuclear weapons, but says the question is becoming unavoidable.
Citing “big strategic shifts in Asia,” he argues that “it is no longer clear that nuclear weapons would never make sense” to Australian defense.
“The strategic costs of forgoing nuclear weapons in the new Asia could be much greater than they have been until now.”
Developing even limited deterrence would carry enormous economic, political, diplomatic and social cost – requiring Australia to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and provoking neighbors.
But the vast nation-continent may be extremely difficult to defend alone with a limited population and conventional weapons.
White argues that without a cast iron guarantee from Washington, even the mere threat of a nuclear attack from China could “force us to capitulate in a conventional war.”
Decades in the making?
The discussion is not completely out of the blue.
White reports that for decades Australian planners had quietly considered nuclearization and worked on assessments of how long weapons would take to develop.
But until now Canberra always decided that the price was too high, the risks were low and Washington had its back.
But Trump’s capricious temperament means half a century of policy could change with a single tweet.
Meanwhile the threat outlook has changed.
Historical documents show defense analysts did not believe Australia would be targeted even in a serious nuclear conflagration between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Bumping up against China seems much more likely.
And two regions inside Australia’s sphere of interest have become geopolitical hotspots – the South China Sea and the South Pacific.
Australian warships and aircraft routinely patrol through the South China Sea, much of which is claimed by Beijing.
Even when Australian ships stick to international waters, they are shadowed and challenged by the Chinese military.
In one recent incident, lasers were shone at Australian Navy helicopter pilots taking part in a months-long naval operation, forcing them to land.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has launched a diplomatic “step-up” in the South Pacific – hoping to re-engage in a region that increasingly draws Beijing’s attention.
Critics have described White’s ideas as unaffordable, unrealistic and unnecessary.
“To put it mildly, the bipartisan political consensus on Australian defense policy is nowhere near White’s position,” Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute said in a review of White’s book.
Nonetheless, Roggeveen went on to say that White’s view of a rising China and diminished United States was “built on a dispassionate analysis” and was, to him, “convincing.”
Not everyone is as convinced, but the fact White’s ideas are being taken seriously speaks to a growing concern about Australia’s place in the world.
In recent weeks both a Chinese naval task force and a US assault ship have sailed into Sydney Harbor – the fact both were invited did little to quiet public debate about how Australia relates to the world’s two major powers.