Australia should consider the ‘difficult and uncomfortable’ question of developing its own nuclear weapons because it can no longer rely on America for protection, experts have warned.
Former defence strategist and security analyst Hugh White says Australia needs to stand on its own two feet as China becomes a more dominant power.
Mr White said China’s increased dominance in Asia meant Australia needed to reconsider whether its standing agreement with America, which ensures protection through the US’s ‘nuclear umbrella’, is enough.
‘It’s made perfect sense for Australia not to contemplate nuclear weapons for the last 40 years because we’ve enjoyed a very high level of confidence in the American nuclear umbrella, but America provided that umbrella because it secured its position as the primary power in Asia,’ Professor White told the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘If the chances of [maintaining] that position are much lower, then our circumstances will be very different.
‘We have to ask ourselves, can we defend ourselves against a power like China?’
China’s economy is booming, and will be twice the size of the United States’s by 2030.
La Trobe Asia executive director Euan Graham said while he believed Australia’s alliance with the United States was stronger than Mr White suggested, there was a need to consider preparing for a future where it wasn’t.
‘I think Australia has to be thinking about what will be required to move to a nuclear weapon posture because that can’t happen overnight,’ he said.
Lowy Institute’s international security program director Sam Roggeveen agreed, noting if Australia were to part from the United States, defence would be seriously compromised.
‘If we ever completely decouple from the [US] alliance then it’s hard to see how we could essentially maintain our independence against China’s coercion if we didn’t have nuclear weapons,’ Mr Roggeveen said.
Arthur Culvahouse, the new US Ambassador, told The Australian that while the United States’ assurances to protect Australia were ‘solemn’ and ‘unbreakable’, the superpower wanted to see more leadership from Australia in the Pacific.
‘We believe Australia can and should play a great power leadership role in the region,’ he told The Australian.
‘It’s Australia’s area. You’re a little more nimble and subtle than we are. We are not abdicating our role, by any means. But we want to pay particular attention to the Australian leadership role in our region.’
Linda Reynolds, the Minister for Defence, told the Herald Australia stands by its pledge to not acquire or develop nuclear weapons.