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Australia’s stake in the regional nuclear order

Posted By on November 22, 2017 @ 12:30

In September, ASPI hosted the 2017 Nuclear Strategy Masterclass where leading defence and security experts dissected the current environment. Some key warnings resonated from the event: the threats that Australia faces regionally, and as a US ally, are significant and dynamic, and there’s a dearth of informed public and policy debate on nuclear strategy.

In 2006, the DPRK replaced its nuclear agenda of ‘build, bargain, pause’ with just ‘build’. With announcements from Pyongyang that the DPRK has successfully miniaturised its weapons and that nuclear war over the Korean peninsula may ‘break out at any moment’, the ‘build’ agenda seems to have stuck. Meanwhile, India, Pakistan and China have been increasing their stores [1] of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, and the murmurings of advancing collaboration or trade in missile technologies between Pyongyang and Islamabad are becoming clearer [2]. And Donald Trump’s refusal to recertify, and his threats to terminate, the 2015 US–Iranian deal have created new uncertainties over the shape of the future nuclear order in the Middle East.

Rhetoric and missile tests out of the DPRK have created a flurry of attention, stoked by President Trump’s Twitter account. Valid concerns are being raised by the public, media and governments over the current and future value of the non-proliferation agenda, and the intentions of the US and allied deterrence strategy. Though the question of rationality continues to float around the media circuit, there seems to be a consensus now that, despite his wild provocations, Kim Jong-un is sane and he’s working with a purpose, albeit a dangerous one. Strategic threats are increasingly real.

The heated to and fro between the DPRK and the US is signalling regional insecurity and has highlighted the limitations of defensive capabilities in South Korea and Japan. Both Seoul and Osaka are within range of North Korea’s extended-range Scud missiles, and Seoul is outside of the protection of US-developed THAAD anti-missile system. Amid the discussions on North Korea, Trump’s recent visit to Seoul also reignited tensions over trade negotiations and South Korea’s hosting of US troops (some 28,500 [3]). Meanwhile, relations between South Korea and China have calmed after a period of discord. China is taking up opportunities to sow divisions between the US and its friends in the region. Some see America’s at times isolationist rhetoric as an instigator [4] to reduce South Korea’s reliance on the US for defence. In this active environment, the potential for South Korea and Japan to proliferate is becoming more likely.

Though it’s by no means a new concept, an increasingly critical discussion for the public and governments concerns what alternative theories of victory might look like—detailed by Dr Brad Roberts here [5]. Understanding the practical variations of success when it comes to nuclear powers could lead to the development of more tailored deterrence strategies—and maybe a more informed public and policy debate will follow.

There’s a temptation to focus the debate on the ‘unknowns’ of Russia and the DPRK. But the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons seems to indicate that, internationally, we don’t have a clear and unified contemporary goal and strategy. Government position and public opinion are not aligned in many states that oppose the treaty, especially those under the nuclear umbrella. A lack of informed discussion on the topic is leaving a vacuum that can be quickly filled with unhelpful rhetoric. Many experts have slammed [6] the ban, suggesting that it will undermine the more incremental work towards disarmament like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. I agree that the approach taken has definite risks [7] and the benefits are still unclear, but disregarding it entirely is also avoiding harder questions about the NPT and our current strategy.

Superpower bipolarity seems to be a thing of the past. There’s a moving feast of strategic dyads and triads in our region (including non-state actors) and existing conflicts are intersecting with new technologies. The techno-military dynamics in China are of particular concern as cyber capabilities and nuclear and advanced conventional weapons are being developed (for example, a recent US inquiry [8] highlighted specific advancements in hypersonics and space control). The status quo strategy of the Cold War is stale and it’s increasingly important for Australia to move away from siloed discussions and consider those shifts and threats more holistically.

Australia has a unique stake in the Asian nuclear order. But a lot of our discussions on the issue still err towards the academic, or ride on the intellectual coattails of our friends with nuclear capabilities. We’d do better to find our own voice. Instability in the Asia–Pacific and potential shifts towards a proliferation cascade are issues that aren’t going away. In this context, Australia should be working more actively to strengthen the existing nuclear ordering project in the Asia–Pacific, including by encouraging other states to move beyond an approach that relies heavily upon mere voluntary restraint. Our conversations on the hill and in public debate should pay due regard to that.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-stake-in-the-regional-nuclear-order/

URLs in this post:

[1] increasing their stores: https://thediplomat.com/2016/02/nuclear-instability-in-the-asia-pacific-region/

[2] clearer: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-calls-for-action-on-pakistan-n-korea-nuclear-missile-links/articleshow/61064578.cms

[3] 28,500: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/09/what-is-the-us-militarys-presence-in-south-east-asia

[4] an instigator: https://www.vox.com/world/2017/8/16/16152774/south-korea-north-korea-trump-military-liberation-day-speech

[5] here: https://cgsr.llnl.gov/event-calendar/2015/2015-05-21

[6] slammed: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/03/29/commentary/japan-commentary/dont-obstruct-efforts-ban-nuclear-weapons/#.WWbVwoSGOpo

[7] definite risks: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/nuclear-ban-cometh-unfortunately/

[8] US inquiry: https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/transcripts/China%27s%20Advanced%20Weapons.pdf

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