"In the National Interest": Australia's Approach to Nuclear Proliferation in a Changing International Environment

By Clarke, Michael | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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"In the National Interest": Australia's Approach to Nuclear Proliferation in a Changing International Environment


Clarke, Michael, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The "Australia-China Nuclear Material Transfer Agreement and Nuclear Cooperation Agreement" signed on 4 April 2006 raises a number of important questions regarding not only Australia's relationship with the PRC but more broadly Australia's attitude toward the existing non-proliferation regime represented by the pillars of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In the context of the ongoing international debate concerning the efficacy of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in preventing or managing nuclear proliferation, Australia's undertaking to enter a nuclear cooperation agreement with the PRC, once identified as a "strategic competitor" of Australia's major alliance partner, the US, suggests that the Howard government's approach to proliferation issues has been re-evaluated. Moreover, development of "nuclear relations" between Australia and China will no doubt also raise questions regarding China's proliferation record and whether measures and assurances are embodied in the agreement regarding proliferation risks. Indeed, these developments highlight the emerging nexus between Australia's evolving role in facets of the international nuclear fuel cycle and the contemporary challenges facing the international community in attempting to maintain and construct effective nonproliferation mechanisms. (1)

This paper argues that the Howard government's evolving approach to nuclear issues (particularly in relation to proliferation) can be characterised as an attempt to balance the competing imperatives of maintaining Australia's reputation as a nuclear non-proliferation standard bearer, regional strategic and economic considerations and the weight of the Australia-US alliance. The paper suggests, however, that this particular approach in the context of the contemporary international environment is fraught with a number of significant dangers for Australia. Three major questions stemming from the recent agreement impinge on these broad areas of concern for Australian foreign policy and security. Firstly, what is Australia's current nonproliferation strategy and how does it relate to changing international approaches to nuclear proliferation? Secondly, what are the implications of the agreement's content for Australia's non-proliferation strategy? Thirdly, where does the Howard Government's approach to nuclear issues position Australia in relation to its chief alliance partner, the US? The paper will begin by placing the Howard government's non-proliferation strategy since it came to office in 1996 in historical context and examine its relationship to Australia's broader foreign policy agenda. Particular emphasis will be placed upon the impact of evolving international debates, especially the evolution of US policy, and policy toward nuclear proliferation on Australian policy since 1996. In particular, a brief analysis of the recent US-India agreement and its implications for the international non-proliferation regime will provide an instructive counterpoint for the subsequent discussion of the Australia-China nuclear agreement's impact and potential implications for the Howard Government's nonproliferation strategy. This discussion will include some analysis and speculation as to where the agreement and its policy implications leave Australia in the context of its two most important Asia-Pacific relationships with the US and China. In particular, the paper will suggest that the evolution of Australian policy regarding nuclear issues since 2001 has exhibited a tendency toward band-wagoning or hedging behaviour in relation to emergent US policy in order to maximise Australia's ability to accrue benefits across the strategic, security and economic spheres. (2)

The Howard Government's Non-proliferation Strategy: Continuity in Substance, 1996-2001

In an early effort to repudiate the Keating-Evans charge during the 1996 election that a Howard-led government would result in the deterioration of Australia's standing in Asia, the new Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, asserted that "there is a national consensus on the importance of Australia's engagement with Asia" and that "no side of Australian politics 'owns' the Asia vision".

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