Nuclear weapons and their role in Australia’s future defence are being openly debated by some key thinkers in Canberra. A recent ASPI Strategic Insights paper by Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith highlights a worsening security outlook and reduction in strategic warning for major-power threats. Hugh White’s latest Quarterly Essay, ‘Without America’, raises the prospect of the US ceding the Asia–Pacific to a rising China, and examines Australia’s defence policy options in this much more contested security future. White suggests that Australia may need to re-examine nuclear weapons as an option, and Dibb has called for a review of the process and the technological lead time to acquire such weapons. Finally, ASPI’s Andrew Davies has pointed out that the logical endpoint of the analysis conducted by Dibb and Brabin-Smith and White is an Australian nuclear weapons capability.
So the topic is very much on the table. That’s a sign of how bad things may get in coming years. But realistically, what would be the triggers for Australia taking such a step?
It’s not in Australia’s interests to get nuclear weapons if the US’s extended nuclear deterrence security guarantees remain strong. Despite Donald Trump’s suggestions on the campaign trail that Japan and South Korea should get nuclear weapons and look after themselves, there’s no sign that extended nuclear deterrence has weakened now that he’s in office. If anything, President Trump’s talk of unleashing ‘fire and fury’ against the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs reinforces concerns that he might rush to first use of nuclear weapons in coming months.
Yet Trump’s erratic approach to foreign policy contributes to a perception of US strategic decline. The marginalisation of the political centre, together with bitter partisan bickering, undermines Washington’s ability to make coherent policy. That in turn weakens its ability to fund defence modernisation and meet the growing challenges from China and Russia.