The US deserves Australia’s firm support as it tries to manage the rise of China’s power in the Pacific, but as a close friend of both countries Australia should try to discourage them from starting another nuclear arms race.
Australians rarely pay attention to the world of nuclear arms control, which to most of us seemed to have been consigned to the world of airport spy novels. But it suddenly re-emerged on our doorstep at the annual Australia-US security talks attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper. Dr Esper surprised many by saying that the US now considered itself “free” to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Asia, perhaps even in Australia, presumably as a launch pad towards China.
Mr Pompeo refused to rule out basing them in Australia, but Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said on Monday that the US officials had not asked and were not anticipating asking Australia to take any missiles.
In fact, it is not surprising that the strategic rivalry between China and the US that has manifested itself in tit-for-tat trade wars and naval stand-offs in the South China Sea has now spread to nuclear weapons.
The underlying problem is that the nuclear arms control treaties that have kept the peace for decades were negotiated between the US and the Soviet Union, before China developed its own massive nuclear strike force. The US may be right to renegotiate these outdated treaties but let us avoid the mistakes of the Cold War. The aim must be to build trust and strike new deals that reduce the risks and costs. No one should try to win.