Australia’s strategic environment is changing, and not for the better. Under Chinese president Xi Jinping, China seems on an inexorable path to become the dominant power in East Asia, willing to use its considerable economic, military and political force to shape the region to its wishes. Tweet by tweet, US president Donald Trump undermines confidence in the reliability of US alliance commitments, yet he is only a symptom of a United States that had already begun prioritising “nation-building at home” under President Barack Obama. The relative economic weight of Australia and its traditional partners in North-East Asia and Europe continues to decline as large, populous nations and continents including Africa, India, China and Indonesia narrow the gap in GDP per head. And now that North Korea has all but demonstrated the ability to deliver thermonuclear warheads atop intercontinental ballistic missiles, Australia’s benefit of geographic remoteness is also reduced.
As Australia’s situation changes, so do the questions about how to defend it. The emergence of an era in which stability in Asia is no longer guaranteed prompts a question that until recently may have seemed far-fetched: does Australia need to acquire nuclear weapons? In the past twelve months, three former deputy secretaries of defence – Hugh White, Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith – have all asked whether Australia should contemplate at least the possibility it might seek to do so in coming years. The suggestion is not new, but it is being considered with a degree of seriousness that has not been seen in this country since the heady early days of the atomic age, and it is one that many thought Australia had long left behind when it ratified the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) in 1973.