As rising nuclear threats become harder to ignore, non-nuclear states have responded in one of two ways. The majority have sought to reduce the risks of deliberate or inadvertent nuclear war by doubling down on disarmament efforts, crystallised most eloquently in the Nuclear Ban Treaty adopted in 2017. The treaty has been signed by 79 states and ratified by 33. It will enter into force with 50 ratifications.
Meanwhile around 30 countries that depend on the US nuclear umbrella for their security have become increasingly apprehensive of abandonment by their protector under President Donald Trump. Even with nuclear weapons being integrated into NATO military doctrine and deployed on the territory of non-nuclear allies, some Europeans have opened a debate on acquiring their own bomb as a hedge against the nuclear threat from a newly-emboldened Russia with the failure to effectively check its ambitions in Ukraine and the Middle East.
The more pressing potential threats for Pacific allies are China and North Korea. While Pyongyang helped to concentrate the minds of strategic analysts, publics and policymakers in Japan and South Korea two years ago, the rapidly worsening China–US relations and the slow-but-steady transformation of the Pacific strategic balance to China’s advantage has stirred a debate even in remote Australia. The nuclear fates of the three Pacific allies are interconnected, in that moves by any one would have cascading consequences in the other two, and possibly also in Taiwan.
The topic has been raised most recently by Hugh White, a friend and colleague at the Australian National University, a former deputy defence secretary, and among Australia’s most prominent public intellectuals on defence issues. In his recent book How to Defend Australia, White urges Australia to hope for the best but prepare for the worst so as not be caught napping by this century’s mutating threats. His description of the choices confronting Australian security planners as US strategic primacy recedes in the Asia–Pacific is stark, uncompromising and equally applicable to Japan and South Korea. This includes a consideration of the nuclear option.
Troublingly, in the book White failed to engage with the nuclear sceptics. In a retrospective dissection of original justifications-cum-expectations behind India’s nuclearisation in 1998 and actual events since then, I pointed to the inconsequential gains and lasting insecurities of the path taken. The operational utility of nuclear weapons is highly dubious to deter or to defend against conventional or nuclear threats, as shown by any number of historical examples. Nor do they guarantee impunity against invasion: think of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Britain’s bomb notwithstanding.
In a public lecture in Canberra on 30 October, White stepped back from his earlier belief in the benefits of nuclear deterrence but still argued for a weighing of future options against the contingency of nuclear blackmail. He identified two regional nuclear powers that could potentially blackmail Australia: China and India. In most of his voluminous writings over the past decade, White has been vocal in calling on Western powers to cede due strategic space in the Pacific to China and come to terms with its dominance in the region. Against that backdrop, India is so inconceivable as a strategic threat to Australia in the foreseeable future that I assume White included it as a ploy to blunt the focus on China as the sole potential threat.
There’s not one clear-cut instance of a non-nuclear state being bullied into changing its behaviour by the threat of being nuclear-bombed. According to a systematic analysis of 210 militarised ‘compellent threats’ from 1918 to 2001 by US scholars Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, non-nuclear states were more successful at coercion than nuclear-armed states 32:20. On 30 October White brought up the example of the 1954–55 Taiwan Straits crisis. This is less clear-cut than he intimated. To begin with, to call this ‘nuclear blackmail’ is an odd characterisation. Should Pyongyang threaten to nuke Seoul if US troops don’t pull out of South Korea, that would be blackmail. But if Pyongyang threatens to use the bomb in response to an armed attack, would that count as nuclear blackmail?
In response to Chinese military action against some of the outer islands, the US military urged the use of nuclear weapons against mainland China but President Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected the recommendation. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned against using the bomb. When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said it was still under consideration, NATO foreign ministers warned against it. Did China back down because of US nuclear brinksmanship, or because of the passage of the Formosa Resolution by Congress in 29 January 1955 authorising Eisenhower to use US forces to defend Taiwan? The crisis, in particular the US nuclear threat, was also useful to Mao Zedong in launching a nuclear-weapon program that led to China’s first test in 1964.
The topic of the annual John Gee Memorial Lecture on 30 October was ‘Thinking the unthinkable: could Australia ever contemplate nuclear weapons?’ The discussion focussed almost entirely on the subtitle. Yet it’s worth pondering on the main title itself. The heightened sense of nuclear anxiety has three roots. First, the nine nuclear-armed states are engaged in expanding, modernising and upgrading their arsenals and investing in growing cyber, AI and other technological capabilities. Second, the arms control architecture is crumbling as existing pacts fall by the wayside one by one. And third, nuclear-tipped belligerent rhetoric from American, Russian, British, North Korean, Indian and Pakistani leaders have steadily normalised the nuclear discourse with respect to possession and threats of use of nuclear weapons.
In this context, discussing the option of independent nuclear weapons for Australia, Japan and South Korea further normalises the nuclear discourse. On 30 October White conceded that Canberra acting ahead of Seoul and Tokyo is unlikely. But if all three (and almost certainly Taiwan also in that scenario) embark upon a crash program to get the bomb, China is most unlikely to maintain its dramatically restrained posture of under 300 warheads while Russia and the US have over 6,000 each and there’s a string of proliferating hostile nuclear powers in the Pacific. China could also in those circumstances abandon no-first-use and put warheads on a launch-on-warning, high-alert posture, with downstream ripple effects on the size, doctrines and postures of India and Pakistan. Moreover, each fresh entrant into the nuclear club multiplies the risks of accidental and inadvertent war geometrically. And of course there would be zero prospect of the global non-proliferation regime surviving such mass defections. What’s more, unlike Japan and South Korea, in addition to the NPT Australia is legally prohibited by the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone from going down the nuclear weapons path.
The Pacific allies’ net security will be damaged with such proliferation-sensitive developments. In defence and foreign policy, we rarely deal with certainties. Rather, we aim to transform desirable possibilities into probabilities, and reduce undesirable probability into a mere possibility. So yes, White is indeed correct that we cannot be certain that because of historical paucity of nuclear blackmail, this will not happen in future. But against that highly improbable contingency, we increase the probability of a self-fulfilling prophecy of growing nuclear threats to Australia by merely opening the discussion of independent deterrents; and the probability of nuclear-weapon use would increase dramatically should the discussion lead to a mass nuclear breakout. No matter how we slice and dice, this equation just doesn’t compute.
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general, is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
This is a slightly revised version of an article published in The Japan Times on 6 November.