The Albanese government is weighing whether to make a dramatic break with the United States and sign an anti-nuclear weapons treaty that would aggravate Washington and launch a new era in Australian security policy.
Anti-nuclear campaigners are urging the government to join over 90 countries and sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) before the next election, a step that would see Australia abandon a key pillar of the US alliance by removing itself from America’s “nuclear umbrella” in the Asia-Pacific.
Labor’s national platform commits the party to signing and ratifying the treaty – which prohibits member states from participating in any nuclear weapon activities – but only after certain conditions are met.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been a strong supporter of signing the treaty, describing the idea as “Labor at our best”.
The US strongly opposes the treaty and has previously urged friendly nations not to support it, on the grounds it would undermine peace and security.
“Seeking to ban nuclear weapons through a treaty that does not include any of the countries that actually possess nuclear weapons is not likely to produce any results,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said.
A spokesman for the US embassy said the country is committed to advancing nuclear disarmament “but we do not view the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as an effective measure for that purpose”.
A spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the government will consider the treaty “systematically and methodically as a part of our ambitious agenda to advance nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament”.
“There are a number of complex issues to be considered,” she said.
Rod Lyon, a senior fellow in international strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said signing the treaty could throw the existence of the US-Australia alliance into doubt.
“Australia’s signature and ratification would have a range of unfortunate outcomes,” he said. “Our alliance relationship with the US would be one area of immediate blowback. By joining TPNW, we would be rejecting nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence … so the first question must be, would the alliance itself survive?
“Our anti-nuclear grandstanding wouldn’t go down well in NATO, nor with Japan and South Korea. India, a nuclear power itself, might start reappraising whether the Quad [grouping with the US, Australia and Japan] still had a purpose.”
Lyon, a former official in the Office of National Assessments, said he was concerned that many Labor MPs had signed up to support the treaty, but believed it was unlikely the government would ultimately sign or ratify it.
Gem Romuld, Australian director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said “if the government is committed to non-proliferation and disarmament, it will sign the TPNW during this term of government”.
“That would be warmly welcomed by countries across the Asia-Pacific, most of which have already signed the treaty, as well as most of the Australian public,” she said.
Romuld acknowledged ratifying the treaty would represent a “big change for Australia, ending a practice we have had in our security policy for a couple of decades” by prohibiting Australia from hosting American assets armed with nuclear weapons, such as B-52 bombers.
The 2009 Defence White Paper emphasised the protection offered by America’s nuclear umbrella, saying the US-Australia alliance “means that, for so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia”.
Romuld said the AUKUS pact – under which Australia will acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines – does not prevent the government from signing the treaty. “In fact it only underlines the importance of it,” she said.
Nuclear-armed submarines are not expected to visit Australia under the AUKUS pact because they are different from the nuclear-powered attack-class vessels Australia is acquiring.
The spokeswoman for Wong said Labor’s commitment to sign the treaty was conditional on ensuring it complements Australia’s existing non-proliferation commitments, that there is an effective architecture for verification and enforcement and that work is undertaken to achieve universal support.
“The government has reaffirmed that the US Alliance remains central to Australia’s national security and strategic policy,” the spokeswoman said.
Labor MP Josh Wilson, the chair of the joint standing committee on treaties, said the TPNW represented a “much-needed jolt of momentum in the global nuclear disarmament effort”.
“In my view Australia should aspire to sign and ratify, while in the meantime being engaged, supportive, and open to incremental progress,” he said.
Department of Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty told Senate estimates hearings earlier this year that nuclear-armed B-52s could rotate through Australia without breaching its current treaty obligations.
“Successive Australian governments have understood and respected the longstanding US policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on particular platforms,” he said.
Source : WAToday