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Issue Brief #1 - Chasing Mirages: Australia and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella in the Asia-Pacific

Issue Brief #1 - Chasing Mirages: Australia and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella in the Asia-Pacific

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Published by The Wilson Center
Senior Australian officials worked from 1944 to around 1973, when Australia ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to equip their country with a nuclear weapons capability. When Australia did choose to permanently forego the nuclear option, it wasn't because of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but rather because of significant geo-political changes taking place throughout Asia in the mid-1970s. A newly unearthed Australian government document from 1974 describes how a reversal in these trends at some point in the future could lead Australia to consider reversing its long-standing policy of nuclear abstinence, even in the presence of an American nuclear security guarantee.
By Christine M. Leah and Crispin Rovere
Senior Australian officials worked from 1944 to around 1973, when Australia ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to equip their country with a nuclear weapons capability. When Australia did choose to permanently forego the nuclear option, it wasn't because of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but rather because of significant geo-political changes taking place throughout Asia in the mid-1970s. A newly unearthed Australian government document from 1974 describes how a reversal in these trends at some point in the future could lead Australia to consider reversing its long-standing policy of nuclear abstinence, even in the presence of an American nuclear security guarantee.
By Christine M. Leah and Crispin Rovere

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Published by: The Wilson Center on Mar 11, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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08/24/2013

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Casing Miags: Ausalia an  U.S.Nucla Umblla in  Asia-Pacifc
Christine M. Leah and Crispin Rovere
From 1944 to around 1973, senior Australianocials made consistent and serious eortsto equip Australia with nuclear weaponscapability. This ambition was driven by thedesire to contribute to deending Britishinterests in Asia, ears o invasion by China,Indonesia, and Japan, and great power war,as well as the belie that nuclear weaponswere merely bigger and better conventionalweapons, and that they would prolierate.
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 Concomitantly, Australian policymakerstried to reassure themselves in part byseeking inormation on U.S. nuclear warplans in Asia, but with little success.For a number o reasons, the nuclear optionwas eventually abandoned, and PrimeMinister Gough Whitlam ratied the NuclearNon-Prolieration Treaty (NPT) in 1973.However, Canberra’s decision to instead“rely” on the U.S. nuclear umbrella was,to a large extent, the result o geopoliticalchanges in Australia’s environment ratherthan specic security assurances given byWashington. At the same time, Australianpolicy-makers continued to view nuclearweapons and U.S. extended nucleardeterrence as integral to Australian securityrom the 1970s through the end o the Cold
Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
Senior Australian ocials worked rom 1944 to around 1973, whenAustralia ratied the Nuclear Non-Prolieration Treaty, to equip theircountry with a nuclear weapons capability. When Australia did chooseto permanently orego the nuclear option, it wasn’t because o theU.S. nuclear umbrella, but rather because o signicant geo-politicalchanges taking place throughout Asia in the mid-1970s. A newlyunearthed Australian government document rom 1974 describes howa reversal in these trends at some point in the uture could lead Australiato consider reversing its long-standing policy o nuclear abstinence,even in the presence o an American nuclear security guarantee.
INtrodUCtIoN:
Issu Bi #1
 
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Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
Issue Brief #1
www.wilsoncenter.org/npihp
War. For example, the 1994 Deence WhitePaper (one o the rst White Papers ater thecollapse o the Soviet Union) stated that:The use o nuclear weaponsremains possible…althoughit is hard to envisage thecircumstances in which Australiacould be threatened by nuclearweapons, we cannot rule out thatpossibility. We will continue torely on the extended deterrenceo the U.S. nuclear capability todeter any nuclear threat or attackon Australia.
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However, new archival ndings reveal thateven ater Australia had ratied the NPT, theview o Australia’s deense establishmentwas that the nation could not rely solelyupon American nuclear assurances toinoculate Australia against a nuclear attack.A newly unearthed 1974 Australian StrategicBasis paper and other sources revealthat Australia’s commitment to nuclearabstinence has to a large extent been aunction o a relatively benign securityenvironment, not American securityassurances.These new archival ndings could holdimportant insights or U.S.-Australianrelations in the present and uture as theUnited States pivots toward Asia whilesimultaneously decreasing the size o itsnuclear arsenal.
rginal Scuiy,  GlbalNucla o an Ausalia’s 1974Sagic Basis Pap
For many decades it has been assumedby some that Australia’s decision to ratiyo the NPT stemmed rom a belie in thestrength and credibility o the Americannuclear umbrella.
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However, Australia’spublic commitment to nuclear abstinencewas largely a unction o radical strategicchanges that had made the Asia-Pacic amuch more peaceul place.For example, the pro-communist IndonesianPresident Sukarno was ousted in a coup in1965, and in 1972 Prime Minister Whitlamnormalized relations with China. A level o strategic stability was developing in Asiaas a result o an uncontested Americanpresence, and the likelihood o major andlimited war declined dramatically. At thesame time, a new recognizable nuclear orderwas emerging in which there was a growingnorm against the possession o nuclearweapons. The Nuclear Non-ProlierationTreaty had been open or signature rom1968. Yet, despite Australia’s increasinglybenign security environment rom the early1970s onward, and its acceptance o the NPT,nuclear weapons would continue to play animportant role in Australia’s thinking aboutits security in acute crises.The most compelling example o this is arecently uncovered Strategic Basis paperrom 1974 that was supposed to have beendestroyed. It concluded that because o itsunique and isolated geographic location, in
 
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Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
Issue Brief #1
www.wilsoncenter.org/npihp
certain crises Australia could not rely onthe United States to deter a nuclear attackon the country, and might seek to obtain itsown arsenal o American-supplied strategicweapons.Strategic Basis papers were guidancedocuments prepared by the Australiandeense establishment. The 1974 StrategicBasis paper drew upon contributions romthe Joint Intelligence Organisation, theActing Chie o Deence Sta, and wasdrated by a rst assistant secretary at theDepartment o Deence. It was endorsedby the most powerul public servant inAustralian history, then Secretary o Deence Sir Arthur Tange. When it waspresented to Prime Minister GoughWhitlam and his cabinet, however, theyrejected the assessment and ordered thatthe document be shredded.While not accepted by the Whitlamgovernment, the ideas contained inthe 1974 Strategic Basis Paper werestrongly refective o the reasons orAustralia’s historically strong interest inan independent nuclear capability, namelythat Australia could not rely on the UnitedStates or protection against attack in theace o nuclear threats that were ocusedupon Australia. It stated:[Where] a major power’s nuclearweapons had become the sourceo threat to Australia the optionwould be open to the U.S., inparticular, to provide Australiawith a nuclear capability o akind which might be adequateor deterrence. But we certainlycannot assume that it would.
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No substantial threat o attackon Australia by a major powerwould be likely to occur unlessthat power possessed a nuclearcapability; and unless it assessedthat there was a negligible risko Australia being deended byanother nuclear-armed power.
It follows that were nuclear powers evidently unwilling to become involved in the defence of Australia, a non-nuclear Australiawould be subject to nuclear blackmail… The nuclear threat involved could be applied at inter-continental range and could be countered by no conventional process. We conclude that anecessary condition for any defence of Australia against a major power would be the possession by Australia of acertain minimum credibility of strategic nuclear capability…
Whether it would be necessaryor Australia also to possessa tactical nuclear capability isa matter on which denitive judgment could be given onlyin light o detailed analysis…We conclude (provisionally) thatAustralia should avoid a nuclearcapability other than could andwould be employed in a strategicmode and that the existenceo that capability should beexploited to deter the use o tactical nuclear weapons againstAustralian orces or Australianterritory.
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[Emphasis added]This view was held by a signicantnumber o senior ocials in the Australian

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