In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Australia has pulled from the standard toolkit. Strongly worded statements. Far-flung economic sanctions. Humanitarian and military assistance. The dull threat of expelling the ambassador.
Our support is surely appreciated by partners. But it will hardly change the conflict's trajectory. Ukraine, the US, NATO, Europe and, of course, Russia, will ultimately dictate how the conflict unfolds.
Instead, Australia must look to lead on strategic issues, rather than to simply follow on operational ones. Global crises present such opportunities. And this conflict highlights one area that Australia is well-positioned to lead on: reducing the risk of nuclear weapons.
The chance of a nuclear attack in Ukraine may be very low - some analysts suggest around 5 per cent - but worldwide attention gives impetus to the cause.
Australia has long been a leader on nuclear non-proliferation effort. In 1995, prime minister Paul Keating launched the Canberra Commission, which called for the transition to a nuclear-free world. A year later, the government led the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In 2010, Australia worked with Japan to form the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, seeking to drive the disarmament agenda of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
We have world-leading capabilities on nuclear research, science and security. Australia is ranked first on nuclear security among all countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials. Our nuclear safeguards organisation, ASNO, operates 22 facilities used to detect nuclear explosions under the international monitoring regime, the third-largest number of any country. Our nuclear research shop, ANSTO, recently completed a state-of-the-art integrated nuclear safety and security test.
And with the largest uranium deposits in the world, Australia has a direct interest in the secure trade of nuclear materials.
As tensions rise between nuclear-armed states, Australia needs to lean into its leadership position.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, public attention to nuclear disarmament and proliferation has dwindled. North Korean tests and Iranian negotiations may bring nuclear issues to the front pages, but these nuclear wannabes only distract us from the tectonic shifts.
China is increasing and modernising its nuclear weapons capabilities just as its competition with the US intensifies. Reversing its 2010 decision to reduce its stockpile, the UK intends now to increase it from 225 warheads to 260. Pakistan-India tensions, border clashes between China and India, and growing regional terrorism test nuclear security in south Asia. And Russia has almost completed a mass modernisation of its 4500-strong nuclear arsenal.
Emerging technologies will change the nature of nuclear stability. Artificial intelligence-enabled weapons systems could make locating, tracking and targeting nuclear capabilities much easier. This could quickly erode second-strike deterrence, and incentivise an arms race and nuclear escalation. Cyber attacks could also produce false warnings of a nuclear strike, interrupt command and control during nuclear crises, or enable control of nuclear weapons systems.
We must also not forget the globally catastrophic cost of even limited nuclear war. A conflict between India and Pakistan that releases just one-quarter of their small nuclear arsenals could kill hundreds of millions. Much of the death does not occur from the weapons' explosion and radiation. Instead, the soot and smoke caught in the upper atmosphere reduces global temperatures, leading to mass agricultural loss and global starvation. A nuclear war between superpowers would probably lead to a full-blown nuclear winter.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is one such effort. And the Labor Party has indicated its support. But we can't expect nuclear states to come around.
Australia must lead within the existing system. We could pioneer global efforts to fix gaps in the global nuclear security architecture. We could help drive dialogue and norms around the use of cyber and AI in weapons systems, potentially under the NPT framework. We could take charge with ASEAN and Quad partners to shape attitudes towards nuclear risk. We could collaborate with the US to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, starting with a follow-up to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. We could champion the use of new technologies, such as blockchain, for verification regimes.
In her statement to the Conference on Disarmament this week, Foreign Minister Payne recognised the urgent need to reduce nuclear risk. Yet, rather than leading the charge, she stated that "Australia stands ready to think and act creatively".
Of all the issues that Australia could lead on globally, nuclear risk is surely near the top of the list. It is where we have a comparative advantage. And there are few greater threats to our security in the coming decades.
If not us, then whom? And if not now, then when?
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