Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 21:57 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 21:57 | SYDNEY

A new nuclear restraint initiative for Asia


Rory Medcalf


13 March 2008 14:55

Australia should combine its Asia diplomacy and its nuclear arms control diplomacy: this was a key theme of the lecture I gave yesterday at the Lowy Institute. I presented a case for a new kind of nuclear arms control initiative by Australia, and a way for the Rudd Government to fulfil its undertaking to craft a more activist role for Australia in nuclear disarmament. 

In short, Australia should lead a process towards a leaders’ dialogue to mobilise a regional consensus on nuclear restraint. This might take the form of a united stance by, say, the 16 countries of the East Asia Summit, including such key players as China, India, Japan and Indonesia, to confirm a united regional front in support of the following principles:

  • The only acceptable role for nuclear weapons is to deter other nuclear weapons, and in the context of efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals;
  • No first use of nuclear weapons;
  • Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear armed states; and
  • No nuclear weapons to be kept on high levels of alert.

Such a statement could be a strong signal from Asia about the need for a restrained and stable nuclear order – precisely the kind of order the region needs if it is to prosper and to manage strategic competition involving its rising powers.

If East Asia (with India) is indeed becoming this century’s global hub of power and prosperity, then the region’s voice will command increasing attention, including in the next Review Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, due in 2010.  One aim would be to help cut across the stale alignments (Western Group versus Non-Aligned Movement, Nuclear Weapons States versus Non-Nuclear Weapons States, NPT parties versus non-NPT parties) that beset most global efforts at arms control, and that contributed to the wreck of the last NPT RevCon in 2005.

I’m not suggesting that any of this will be easy. Feathers will be ruffled; notably in the US, Russia and Pakistan, three neighbours of East Asia which each rely on assertive nuclear postures. There is no shortage of criticism that can be levelled at just about any new initiative in the complex arena of nuclear arms control. So in refining my suggestions for a more formal publication, I would welcome views from readers (and from Lowy podcast listeners, given that this short blog post provides only a fragment of my proposal). The challenge will be to find ideas that are modest enough to have a chance of success, yet ambitious enough to be worth the diplomatic investment.

Speaking of which, a vital starting point will need to be better resourcing for Australia’s thinned-out ranks of arms control diplomats and analysts.  These may be tough budgetary times in Canberra, but when weighed against the costs of other pieces of national security architecture – armed forces, intelligence agencies, and the bottomless financial pit of crisis management – arms control diplomacy is a bargain.