Australia and Emerging Strategic Risks in the Asia-Pacific
Asia-Pacific Strategic Risks

Australia and Emerging Strategic Risks in the Asia-Pacific

Together with the European Leadership Network, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network has run a series of workshops and conferences on the perception of strategic risks among three Asia-Pacific states, that analyses the impact of those risk perceptions on the nuclear non-proliferation regime. This report by Dr. Michael Cohen provides the Australian perspective.

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Executive summary

Australian strategic threat perceptions:

  • Australia perceives China to drive many (but not all) of the strategic threats and risks that Canberra faces, and there is bipartisan convergence on the policy on China.
  • A specific concern in Australia is the prospect of a US war with China over Taiwan or several other crisis points, as well as the trade-offs that this would present.
  • Australian support for the US-Australia alliance is strong, and it is likely that Australia would become involved in any such conflict, because US bases and intelligence facilities in Australia are central to the operation of US military systems in the region. However, the degree to which the Australian public would support the US if a war broke out is more unclear.

Australian attitudes to nuclear weapons:

  • One of the most important developments in Australia’s national security portfolio was the AUKUS deal to acquire nuclear powered submarines, along with a spate of other technological upgrades.
  • Australian nuclear-powered submarines may bring nuclear power, and maybe nuclear weapons, slightly closer to Australia’s grasp and may encourage other states to go in the same direction, which would place more pressure on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
  • Although the current Australian government is a strong supporter of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and has no intentions of pursuing nuclear weapons, it cannot guarantee that its successors will not harbour different ambitions.

The future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime

  • A nuclear-armed Australia remains a highly unlikely scenario, but one which could take place if the viability of the US-Australia alliance was threatened, for example due to insufficient commitment by Australia in a US-China conflict over Taiwan, that might put the viability of the US-Australia alliance and US extended deterrence into question.

Other reports in this series:

The Japanese perspective – Nobumasa Akiyama

The South Korean perspective – Lee Sang Hyun

About the Author

Michael Cohen is convenor of the National Security College’s PhD program. He has expertise in International Security with an empirical focus on the Indo-Pacific. His more specific research interests include the causes and implications for armed interstate conflict of nuclear weapons proliferation and international alliance dynamics, the role of political leaders and how their foreign policy decision-making can be improved and the efficacy of signalling and coercion in National Security affairs. Empirically he has expertise on the Korean peninsula, South Asia, China, the United States and the US-Australia alliance.

The publication of this report was supported by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The views represented herein belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of APLN or ELN, their respective staff, boards, or members, nor do they reflect the views of the FCDO.

(Image: iStock)