A Shifting World
"We have to ask ourselves, can we defend ourselves against a power like China?" Hugh White, a former defense strategist to several Australian prime ministers who now teaches strategic studies at the Australian National University, summarized his new book thusly in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on July 1.
White’s book, “How to Defend Australia,” argues that it’s impossible for Australia to defend itself without its defensive pact with the United States, and since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency, the solidity of that pact is more in question than ever. As a consequence, Canberra must once again pick up a "difficult and uncomfortable" debate it hasn’t seriously weighed in half a century: whether or not it would improve Australian security to develop its own nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent.
"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,” White told the Herald, “but America provided that umbrella because it secured its position as the primary power in Asia.”
"If the chances of [maintaining] that position are much lower, then our circumstances will be very different,” he said.
White’s comments reflect a wider anxiety among Autralians that Washington might waver in a future showdown with China, sacrificing Australia’s interests in favor of its own.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned in July 2018 during a speech at the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation think tank that "American values can be relied upon but American help less so… This need not presage a darker time, like Rome's withdrawal from Britain, but more will be required of the world's other free countries. Will they step up? That's the test.”
When three Chinese warships steamed into Sydney Harbor last month as part of a scheduled-but-unannounced visit, it sparked a wave of nationalist outcries, Sputnik reported, with media outlets making a great deal out of the fact that the visit happened while Prime Minister Scott Morrison was on an overseas trip to the Solomon Islands.
‘Wishful Thinking’ the US Will Stay Dominant
Australia’s economic security has been guaranteed for decades by mineral exports to China, meaning that Beijing’s steady growth has pulled Canberra along in the current. However, what happens when China eventually eclipses the US in the Pacific?
Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) predicted last September that by 2030, the Chinese economy will be a colossal $26 trillion, up from $14.1 trillion at present. At that point, it would become the world’s largest economy, as HSBC projects a more modest growth for Washington’s $20.4 trillion economy to only $25.2 trillion by 2030.
On Australia Broadcasting Company’s “Q&A” talk show Monday, White said that “America will remain an extraordinarily powerful country with huge assets,” but noted that the Australian government’s 2017 estimates projected a much, much higher growth rate for China’s economy than HSBC, reaching $42 trillion by 2030.
Regardless of which estimate is more accurate, he said, “the fact is that America won’t remain the most powerful country in the world; it won’t remain the most powerful country in Asia. It’s just wishful thinking” to say otherwise.
Weighing the Options
It was Australia’s titanic prime minister, Robert Menzies, who last considered acquiring nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 60s - first from the United States, then through a domestic program - but Canberra ultimately decided the cost wasn’t worth the benefit, especially since in the vast majority of US-Soviet nuclear exchange predictions, Australia wasn’t a target, AFP noted.
However, Australia’s no stranger to atom bombs. The British government detonated its first atomic bomb in Operation Hurricane on Australia’s Monte Bello Islands in 1952, and until 1963, dozens of other tests were performed in Australia’s vast Outback desert. However, by 1970 Canberra had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, pledging not to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Sam Roggeveen, the director of the Lowy Institute's International Security Program and a guest professor at White’s university department, told the Herald that if Australia went back on its non-proliferation commitments, it would both set a precedent and spark an arms race in the region in which Australia’s much larger northern neighbor of Indonesia would effectively be obliged to start its own nuclear weapons program. However, Roggeveen warned that “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.”
However, Roggeveen made clear, “To put it mildly, the bipartisan political consensus on Australian defense policy is nowhere near White’s position.”
A Costly Endeavor
Australia’s defense budget is already larger than ever, having set the goal in a 2016 Defence White Paper of reaching 2% of GDP by 2020-21. The 2019-20 budget approved in April saw a $1.6 billion increase to $27.5 billion, Australia Defense Magazine reported at the time.
However, the budgetary requirements of a nuclear weapons program would be steep: White estimates the Australian Department of Defense budget would have to increase from 2% to 3.5% of Australia’s GDP - that’s $20.9 billion, a 75% increase.
In 2017, Canberra laid out an ambitious Naval Shipbuilding Plan that set aside $65.3 billion for a slew of new warships including frigates, submarines and landing helicopter docks - which are aircraft carriers in all but name - in what amounts to the delivery of a new warship every 18 to 24 months for the next 20 years, Sputnik reported.
The expansion is accompanied by extensive diplomatic maneuvering in the Pacific islands, with Canberra pressing its northeastern neighbor of Papua New Guinea to develop a joint naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island at the site of an old US naval base dating to World War II. Morrison’s visit to the Solomon Islands last month - when the Chinese warships visited Sydney - was actually aimed at convincing the archipelago nation’s government to accept a $250 million Australian aid package instead of one from Beijing, the Australian Associated Press reported at the time.
"Australian diplomacy in recent years has been trying to capitalize on the fears of various Asian countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore) on the rise of China, though it always subordinates this to Washington's dictates," Binoy Kampmark, senior lecturer at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, told Sputnik last August via email.
More recently, Australian ships have encountered harassment at the hands of Chinese naval forces in areas of the South China Sea claimed by Beijing, including one incident in May in which a Chinese fishing vessel forced several Australian helicopters to return to their ship by pointing lasers at them.