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Australian Financial Review : October 17th 2006
FBA 059 The Australian Financial Review www.afr.com Tuesday 17 October 2006 59 FEATURE Arewereadyfornuclearwar? FALLOUT Excerpts from secret cabinet advice about acquiring nuclear weapons No present requirement is foreseen for Australia to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. However, should a serious breakdown in the international order appear likely to develop, Australia might wish to reconsider the possibility of a requirement for a nuclear capacity. It is important, therefore, that Australia maintain its freedom to reduce the lead time for the development of such a capacity from the present period of seven to 10 years. It appears likely that this would be possible under the non-proliferation treaty but satisfaction of this score should be a factor in any consideration of Australia becoming a party to that treaty. We consider that the opportunities for decision open to the Australian government in future would be enlarged if the lead time for the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability could be shortened. We recommend regard to this ... in the future development of Australia's nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes. If a close neighbour like Indonesia decided to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, Australia would face very hard choices indeed. With the federal government examining the viability of nuclear power, Paul Dibb and Geoffrey Barker uncover secret cabinet documents that reveal the next step -- nuclear weapons capability for Australia -- has been on the table before. North Korea's first nuclear explosion has occurred while Australian leaders are actively encouraging national debate on developing nuclear power and uranium reprocessing industries to help deal with global warming. It may be a stretch to a further debate on whether Australia should consider acquiring nuclear weapons in response to global instabilities created by Pyongyang's nuclear test, but there are historical precedents for such a debate. In 1968, 1971 and again in 1983 the top- level defence committee secretly advised Australian governments to shorten the lead time for the development of an indigenous nuclear weapons capability. The 1968 and 1971 reports coincided with the announcement by former prime minister John Gorton that Australia's first nuclear power station would be built at Jervis Bay. Gorton's move also sparked a public nuclear weapons debate because nuclear power capabilities can provide raw materials for nuclear weapons. While concerns over Cold War nuclear competition are no longer front and centre in Australian strategic policy, the North Korean blast has dramatically highlighted the grim reality of strategic threats confronting Australia in North Asia. Serious, potentially nuclear, conflict in North Asia would totally eclipse Australia's worries about Islamist terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. Japan, China and South Korea are three of Australia's four largest trading partners. Taiwan is not far behind. Total two-way trade with North Asia is above $102 billion and represents nearly 40 per cent of total trade. Australia's prosperity is intimately linked to North Asia ± and it is a region of fast- growing and successful economies where governments have booming budgets for modern conventional arsenals. China is already a nuclear power and Japan and South Korea could acquire nuclear weapons quickly if they decided to do so. Unlike, say, Western Europe, North Asia has developed none of the economic and political structures that effectively eliminate the possibility of armed conflict between nation-states in the region. There is no North Asian union, no North Asian NATO, no arms control treaties. The region is a hotbed of historical, ethnic and ideological rivalry, hatred and competition. It is a region of unresolved and still strongly contested territorial disputes and of formidable military forces. On the Korean peninsula the border between North and South Korea remains one of the most heavily fortified frontiers on earth. North Korea has 13,000 artillery guns within range of Seoul, a city of more than 10 million people. A ceasefire is in force, but there has been no peace settlement between the two Koreas for more than half a century. Relations between China and Taiwan are fraught. Old hatreds between China and Japan and Japan and South Korea are still real ± and Japan is now openly moving away from its post-war ''peace'' constitution as it aspires to be ''a normal country''. Some Japanese leaders are talking about acquiring the military capability to strike North Korea. The reclusive Stalinist regime in North Korea resembles a family crime syndicate that preys on and impoverishes its own population. It has made an art form of using threats to extract aid from other countries in return for not behaving as badly as it has threatened to behave. International concern over the North Korean nuclear test has resulted in a seemingly tough United Nations Security Council resolution imposing trade and other sanctions on Pyongyang, but much will depend on how effectively the sanctions are enforced ± particularly by China, North Korea's only ally. The United States should make it clear to Kim Jong-il that it will reduce his country to rubble should it threaten actively to hitch a nuclear warhead to a missile and to fire it at US allies including Japan or South Korea and Australia. So far China has said international sanctions against North Korea should be ''appropriate'' ± that is, restricted in severity and duration. China's refusal to condemn North Korea unequivocally is disappointing and worrying. While North Korea is a profoundly destabilising presence in North Asia, none of its neighbours want to have to cope singly or in concert with its total collapse. So it will continue as a bellicose outlaw regime, but one now armed with nuclear weapons and with no apparent understanding of the norms of nuclear behaviour and rules of the nuclear game. The question now is: can it be deterred from using a nuclear weapon? Last week Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed concern at what he called the ''flow-on implications'' from the North Korean explosions. Downer worries that the governments of Japan and South Korea might come under domestic pressure to acquire nuclear deterrents to respond to the North Korean threat. What about Australia given the 1968, 1971 and 1983 strategic reports? Prime Minister John Howard and Downer have both urged the development of nuclear power capability for environmental protection, noting that Australia has 40 per cent of the world's uranium and has been a leader in the global anti-proliferation movement. Given Australia's support for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and other international arms control initiatives, the Howard government might be wary of encouraging a debate on nuclear weapons acquisition. Like Japan and South Korea, Australia would prefer to rely on its US ally for ultimate nuclear deterrence. Indeed, John Howard told the Nine Network's 60 Minutes program on Sunday: ''I don't think we gain anything by having nuclear weapons. We gain a lot by using to the full our uranium. ''That's why we are looking at all of the options for nuclear power and uranium enrichment. I think we should certainly use that to the full, but I don't really think we gain anything by working on having a nuclear bomb.'' But Canberra's renewed interest in nuclear power and uranium enrichment is a necessary precondition for a meaningful debate on nuclear weapons. Gorton's nuclear power station proposal was deferred by his successor Billy McMahon and finally scrapped by the Whitlam government ± but not before a so-called ''bomb lobby'' had emerged to argue vociferously for an Australian nuclear deterrent. It remains to be seen whether events like the North Korean explosion could revive the bomb lobby, but the nuclear power debate could prove a catalyst. If a close neighbour ± Indonesia, for example ± decided to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, Australia would face very hard choices indeed. As the highly classified 1983 report on the strategic basis for Australian defence policy advised cabinet: ''Developments relating to nuclear capability in countries within Australia's neighbourhood should be monitored in order to ensure that the lead time for Australia could be matched with developments in other countries should government so decide.'' The 1971 report was even more blunt: ''We consider that the opportunities for decision open to the Australian government in future would be enlarged if the lead time for the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability could be shortened. We recommend in regard to this . . . in the future development of Australia's nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes.'' And the 1968 report noted: '' . . . should a serious breakdown in the international order appear likely to develop, Australia might wish to reconsider the possibility of a requirement for a nuclear capability''. There may be, as Howard has said, no present strategic requirement for Australia to develop a nuclear weapons capability, but there is now the risk of a serious breakdown in the international order in North Asia arising from the competitive acquisition of nuclear weapons following North Korea's test. It is in this part of the world that serious threats to Australia's vital interests could arise with little warning and involving major war and the use of nuclear weapons. Paul Dibb is professor emeritus at the Australian National University's strategic and defence studies centre and a former defence intelligence chief. Geoffrey Barker is a staff writer.