By Dr Aiden Warren
In May 2022, Australia looked poised to move away from a long-term hedging and somewhat pedestrian position on nuclear non-proliferation. One year on, the Albanese government has yet to live up to promises made as leader of the opposition.
Analyses of the Albanese government’s stance on arms control and nonproliferation during its first year in office have revealed a cautious and measured approach. With the AUKUS pact in the mix, movement towards signing and ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has been slower and less enthusiastic than initial pronouncements suggested.
Australia and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
In late 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution mandating the convening of a conference to negotiate a legally binding agreement that would prohibit nuclear weapons and ultimately lead to their total elimination. The TPNW evolved principally out of the sheer frustration felt by some states and nongovernmental disarmament organisations that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was being shunned and that its promise of an eventual world without nuclear weapons would never be achieved.
While nuclear stockpiles were reduced significantly from their heights during the latter stages of the Cold War, the nuclear modernisation and proliferation plans of some P5 UN Security Council members (notably China, Russia, and the United States) revealed the limitations of the NPT. Although the NPT imposed good faith obligations on nuclear-armed states, it left a legal gap to be addressed, namely that nuclear weapons needed to be banned just as chemical and biological weapons are banned.
Reflecting the views of the conservative Liberal Party, which was in power at that time, Australia did not embrace the treaty’s core premise that merely banning nuclear weapons would lead to their elimination. Nor did the Liberal government believe that such a treaty would alter “the current, real, security concerns of states with nuclear weapons or those states, like Australia, that rely on extended nuclear deterrence as part of their security doctrine.”
Indeed, there were strong criticisms about what signing the ban treaty would do to the Australian-U.S. alliance. According to Gareth Evans, a former Labor foreign minister, “the difficulty for Australia in terms of signing or ratifying the ban treaty is that, to do so, we would effectively be tearing up our U.S. alliance commitment.” While in opposition, Richard Marles, now deputy prime minister and defense minister, argued that the ban treaty raised “the prospect of Australia needing to repudiate our longstanding defense relationship” with the United States and “might undermine” the NPT and the ANZUS security agreement.
These criticisms continue to abound even though the alliance relationship does not bind Australia to include weapons of mass destruction in its defense policies. The fact that Australia has signed up to the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions even when the United States has not further demonstrates the point.
Support in Labor for a new position
In 2018, it was clear that these sentiments had come into play when, on the last day of the 48th Australian Labor Party national conference, Anthony Albanese along with the then opposition leader, declared that if the Labor Party won the 2019 Australian federal election, it would sign and ratify the TPNW. It was believed at the time that there was ample support for such a policy, with 78 percent of the federal caucus, 83 percent of Labor voters, and two dozen unions agreeing to endorse the ban treaty.
Despite losing the “unlosable election” that May, the Labor Party reasserted its 2018 policy pledge on the TPNW at a platform conference in March 2021. Party branches in the states of Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, as well the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, passed motions reinforcing the federal position.
As prime minister, Albanese lived up to his initial announcements by sending Susan Templeman, a Labor member of Parliament from Macquarie, to attend the first TPNW meeting of states-parties as an observer. Her attendance was welcomed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, whose spokesperson said the group saw it as “recognition the newly-elected federal government is willing to engage with this critical meeting as a step towards signature and ratification [of the treaty].”
Following these swift movements, however, the government began to slow down rapidly, announcing its desire to first evaluate the legitimacy of the treaty’s verification and enforcement regime; its interface with the NPT; and the extent to which states that signed the treaty proposed to bring together widespread support for the absolute ban.
This caused notable anxiety from key members of the foreign policy establishment. Fifty-five former Australian ambassadors and high commissioners, including notable figures, sent an open letter to the prime minister urging prompt action. Meanwhile, popular support for the treaty was also evident, with a majority of the public favouring Australia’s signature. Civil society actors, such as the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Red Cross, and religious organisations, voiced their support as well. Local government councils across major cities also called for signing and ratifying the TPNW.
In response to the pressure, the government acknowledged the shared ambition for a world without nuclear weapons but continued to emphasise the need for a thorough approach.
It is reasonable to expect the AUKUS agreement, which will include the transference of nuclear power technology to Australia, has played a part in the hold-up. As a non-nuclear-weapon state, Australia’s ability to own, operate, and fuel nuclear-powered submarines will have to comply with strict NPT requirements, a position the foreign minister, Penny Wong, has already acknowledged. But there are concerns about the level of influence American partners may exert on Australia’s TPNW position.
Stewarding Australian authorities and defence personnel through to a nuclear ecosystem sufficient to build and host nuclear powered submarines will be no easy feat. Close dialogue with the U.S. Congress and agencies, such as the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration on submarines and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security on export regulations for categories such as quantum technologies, will be required.
Not much information as to the finer details of the stewarding process has been revealed. The government in early June announced that a new regulator and agency, the Australian Submarine Agency (ASA), would be given the lead. The ASA will take over from the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Taskforce on 1 July 2023.
What is missing in Albanese’s approach thus far is more clarity regarding proliferation concerns, which have resonated at home and abroad. A group of crossbench independents remain hesitant about AUKUS, while the Australian Greens Party, in particular, has disagreed vehemently with the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines, or what they have termed “floating Chernobyls.”
One issue to be addressed pertains to the further development of naval nuclear reactors and the Paragraph 14 loophole in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards document. Albanese needs to articulate in greater detail and nuance how he aims to maintain and even strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the IAEA safeguards system, and not to weaken it through the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.
Additionally, in the context of the NPT, what will the military-to-military transfer of highly-enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state like Australia mean for IAEA verification? Surely this could open the pathway for other non-nuclear-weapon states, some with potential proliferation motives, to obtain nuclear materials and to evade adherence to safeguards. Lastly, the riskiest and most substantial components of nuclear stewardship necessitates a part of the AUKUS proposal that we have heard little about: the degree to which Albanese plans to securely establish “a long-term storage facility for the military-grade nuclear waste from the nuclear-powered submarines.”
Dr Aiden Warren is Professor in Politics and IR at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is also the Deputy Director (Global Security & International Relations) at the Sir Lawrence Wackett Defence and Aerospace Centre and Fulbright Scholar in Australia-United States Alliance Studies.
This article was originally published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs