US extended nuclear assurance: hiding in plain sight
11 Jun 2013|

Boeing US Air Force B-52 being refueled by a Boeing KC-135A. Nuclear-armed B-52s were a key element of Nixon Doctrine-era nuclear deterrence.There’s been a resurgence of interest in recent years among Australian academics in the issue of US extended nuclear assurance to its Asian allies in general and to Australia in particular. I’ve written on this issue, but so too have Andrew O’Neill (PDF), Stephan Fruehling, Ron Huisken (PDF), and Richard Tanter, to name just some of the contributors.

One particular point has often generated a degree of confusion and uncertainty—the question of whether Washington has ever actually extended a nuclear guarantee to Australia. This isn’t a trivial question. In a submission (PDF) to the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in March 2004, Ron Huisken observed that he knew of no specific US commitment to extend nuclear assurance to Australia. Australians, said Huisken, had often ‘claimed’ a US nuclear guarantee, and Washington had never contradicted those claims, but it wasn’t clear the US had ever actually provided a guarantee.

Richard Tanter, in his 2011 article for Pacific Focus, repeated this argument, saying ‘Despite any number of reiterations of US support for the alliance with Australia as a whole, there is no known publicly available US official statement specifically providing an assurance of US nuclear protection for Australia in the face of nuclear threat or nuclear attack.’  He also observed that nuclear assurance has received scant attention from Australian policymakers, with the 1994 Defence White Paper providing the first noteworthy example of official engagement with the doctrine.

The inability to identify a US commitment to extended nuclear assurance for Australia has progressively lead to the idea that either no such commitment exists or that it does exist but is deeply buried in the classified agreements that surround the actual ANZUS treaty. I want to provide a modest input to this debate.  I believe the US extended nuclear assurance to Australia does exist and it isn’t classified.  In fact, it hides in plain sight: it’s Clause 2 of the Nixon Doctrine.

For readers who came in late, here’s the version of US commitments in regard to the Asia Pacific contained within the Nixon Administration’s First Annual Report to Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970s, submitted to Congress on 18 February.

  1. The United States will keep all its treaty commitments.
  2. We shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us, or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security and the security of the region as a whole.
  3. In cases involving other types of aggression we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested and as appropriate. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.

I quote this piece of text for a particular reason.  It’s the wording that William McMahon, then Minister for External Affairs, used in his Ministerial Statement on International Affairs provided to the House of Representatives on 19 March 1970. He specifically outlined the full three clauses of the Nixon Doctrine and read Clause 2 as an extended nuclear assurance, stating that ‘the assurance of United States protection against nuclear aggression is itself of immense value in deterring any threat of such aggression.’ (The quote is at v.66, p.679 of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives) for those keen to see it.)

In the debate on the Ministerial Statement, Gough Whitlam, then Leader of the Opposition, also accepted Article 2 as a US nuclear guarantee, although he proceeded to argue that the guarantee only really applies to full members of the NPT. (The Whitlam concurrence about the status of Clause 2 occurs on 7 April 1970, and can be found at v.66, p.751.)

I’ll sum up by making three points—about context, scope and the future. First, I’d like to wrap some context around the events described above. It’s worth noting that Australia signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on 27 February 1970, only three weeks before McMahon’s Ministerial Statement, and that the NPT entered into force on 5 March 1970.  It forced Australia and other countries to choose their nuclear identities. Australian foot-dragging on signature was motivated not solely by doubts about the agreement’s efficacy, but by a concern that Australia might be putting aside a capability it would need at some future point.  Clause 2 of the Nixon Doctrine gave Canberra what it wanted before signature—an assurance of US nuclear protection into the future.

Second, anyone who reads Clause 2 will see that it provides a shield against a nuclear power which threatens an ally’s freedoms. Its scope is much broader than ANZUS, which is limited to armed attacks in the Pacific area. Threats to an ally’s freedoms by a nuclear power might well involve attempts at nuclear coercion or large-scale conventional conflict, so the scope of Clause 2 isn’t limited solely to the deterrence of nuclear aggression. And while Clause 2 implicitly includes conventional responses and not merely nuclear ones, remember that Clause 2 is additional to Clause 1, which has already committed the US to its standard treaty obligations.

Third, what does this all mean for Australia’s relationship with the US in the Asian Century? Japan and South Korea have already embarked upon dialogues with the US about their own extended nuclear assurances in the shifting power relativities of 21st century Asia. Perhaps it’s time for us to do the same. If the Australian public debate about extended nuclear assurance is so impoverished that participants genuinely can’t identify the source of that assurance anymore, it’s time for revalidation and reinvigoration of the commitment.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.