113 Minute from Pritchett to Plimsoll

Canberra, 20 March 1968

Top Secret

Non-Proliferation Treaty

I passed to you yesterday a copy of the paper on the Non-Proliferation Treaty produced by the working group set up by the Defence Committee.1 The AAEC representative stated that his acceptance of the paper could not be regarded as committing the AAEC. The paper is not 'agreed' therefore in a policy sense. Nevertheless, considerable progress has been made in sorting out and narrowing down various arguments about the Treaty and agreeing their presentation. Dr. Wilson, the AAEC representative, told me privately that he did not consider the possible disabilities under the Treaty in regard to peaceful nuclear purposes of great significance (and in important respects these aspects are governed by other provisions, such as the American McMahon Act). The Commission's chief concern, he said, lay in the security field. It could be, therefore, that the AAEC will oppose the Treaty on these grounds in the Defence Committee and in Cabinet by casting doubt on the strategic and political arguments coming forward. I refer to this further below. I might say that I have an impression that the AAEC is to some extent using argument about possible disabilities on the civil side as a means to protect its position regarding military uses. Unfortunately General Wilton2 will not be at the Defence Committee Meeting. Sir Henry Bland's position regarding the security aspect is uncertain, but certain comments, as for example about the importance of Malik's3 remarks on a nuclear alliance against China, suggest that he might have reservations about surrendering our option to develop nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.

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'The Desirability of the Non-Proliferation Treaty'

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  1. The general political argument in favour of the Treaty is well stated by Hedley Bull in his article today:4
    'First, in common with other nations Australia has an interest in controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, which in the long run represents a danger to international society as a whole, abstract though this may seem. The Treaty will not by itself halt proliferation; and even buttressed by other measures it may well prove insufficient-in the long view of history it is most improbable that the present five nuclear powers will preserve their monopoly. But the Treaty does register world concern about this problem; it will serve to exert some measure of control over the process of proliferation; and for the moment it will perform a holding operation.
    'Secondly, Australia has a stake in the configuration of international politics which the Treaty expresses and will help to solidify. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is the chief enterprise now being pursued in common by the United States and the Soviet Union. It symbolises the hegemonial position of these two countries and their willingness to combine to preserve it against the challenge of new-comers, especially China. Australia stands to gain from the development of cooperation between America and Russia in support of the political status quo.'
    We are not saying there will be no requirement for an Australian nuclear capability; we are arguing for support of a political system that would make that requirement less likely. We recognise that this system could collapse; but the political circumstances leading to this and, in formal terms, our right of withdrawal will offer sufficient opportunity to protect our interests. While the system continues, and with it United States support for Australian security, it is highly unlikely we should find ourselves in a situation in which our only hope of protecting our vital national interests was to produce nuclear weapons.

'The Treaty'

  1. Paragraph 18. If the interpretation of 'manufacture' allows research, development and production for peaceful purposes, even though this work could be significant also to the manufacture of nuclear weapons, then there will be significant scope for non-nuclears to catch up. The area of disadvantage would be confined to work on weapons technology. Restrictions in this field would mean that Australia would be kept at a stage of development at least three years from the final manufacture of a weapon. This would be more than India and probably Japan. The position in regard to other countries is not completely clear from the JIB note in Annex A5 but it seems likely that Australia would not be placed at an unacceptable disadvantage.
  2. Paragraph 22. A central point is raised here. The AAEC argues that since parties to the Treaty are obliged to enter into safeguards agreements with the IAEA they are signing a 'blank cheque'. The Safeguards Agreements are obligatory under the Treaty and are to be negotiated after ratification of the Treay. Since these Agreements are to be 'in accordance with the IAEAStatute and the Agency's safeguards system', parties will have little or no scope for negotiation on the substance of their Safeguards Agreement. Negotiations on substance will be when the New Statute and safeguards system are negotiated, with which the Parties' Safeguard Agreements are to accord. It is not clear from the Treaty if these Agency negotiations are to be before or after ratification. If before, our interests would be protected, for if dissatisfied we could refuse to ratify the Treaty; if after, we do indeed sign a 'blank cheque' for we shall be committed by the Treaty to accept the new system. We should, of course, have opportunity to protect our interests in the Agency negotiations in either case, but these would be subject to a two-thirds majority vote. As far as amendments subsequent to the conclusion of the Safeguards Agreement are concerned, a Party would appear bound to accept them or to be in breach of the Treaty.

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'The Effectiveness of the Treaty'

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  1. Paragraph 29. It was the firm view of the AAEC, Supply and Defence Science members of the working group that effective safeguards depend upon a complete inventory system and that this would require safeguards on mining activities. The Americans appear to disagree on this latter point and the Canadians say they will not accept safeguards on mining.

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'Practicability of Australian Independent Capability'

  1. Paragraphs 35-38. This section makes the most important statement that 'It would not be beyond Australian resources and knowledge to produce nuclear weapons within a 7 to 10 year period with or without external assistance and supplies' (my emphasis). The AAEC representative stated this after questioning from other members. I do not doubt his good faith, but I must say I found the statement hard to accept, at least without further qualification.

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'Australian Military Requirements in the Shorter Term'

  1. This section came under strong attack from the AAEC and Defence Science representatives, but Blakers defended it as deriving from the JPC6 paper and having the general endorsement of the Chiefs of Staff. In fact paras. 42 and 43, dealing with reliance on a major nuclear ally, and 47, dealing with Australia's position in the event of an Indonesian threat, are new material, as the AAEC might point out in the Defence Committee meeting. The argument in the JPC paper on these points was weak and I put forward the present text is a better statement of the position.
  2. Paragraphs 38-40, which do derive from the JPC paper, in particular attracted criticism, even in respect of the vulnerability of Australian cities. (It was argued that only our weapon sites would be attacked). I suggest that it is important that in any paper going to the higher policy levels the statement of these principles be maintained and the considerable limitations that would apply to any independent Australian nuclear capacity be stated. You might, however, find yourself getting drawn into an argument about nuclear strategy with the AAEC. Its representative in the working group argued, for example, that even an inferior capacity would serve as a deterrent, so as it could inflict some damage, which much oversimplifies the question. He also said that large nuclear powers would increase their protection to inferior nuclear states so as to guard against a nuclear exchange in which they might be involved. (This is hardly how the United States would describe its attitude to France).
  3. There was considerable discussion in the working group about the possible requirement of an Australian nuclear capability to deter or deal with an invasion. (This thinking is reflected in Baxter's speech reported in this morning's Australian.) The AAEC and Defence Science representatives argued that Australia's isolation from major centres of population and its continental wastelands were features favouring the use of tactical nuclear weapons against an invader without triggering a wider nuclear exchange. This might well be argued by AAEC representative on the Defence Committee, and perhaps by Sir Henry Bland. It could be that such a view will also be argued in Cabinet.
  4. This argument greatly oversimplifies the complexities of any situation involving nuclear weapons, strategic or nuclear. However, short of a detailed discussion of the strategic considerations, the best response that I can suggest is along the following lines.
  5. In supporting the NPT we are not claiming to foresee the future or maintaining that Australia will never require nuclear weapons. We are supporting a system that offers us, and other countries, significant prospects of a world situation in which a requirement for nuclear weapons will be much more unlikely to arise. To argue Australia's isolation, its future attraction to future aggressive powers, its need to 'keep its powder dry' against some political Armageddon is politically naive and misconceives the political significance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This Treaty does not merely ban nuclear proliferation; it establishes, admittedly in a preliminary way as yet, a system of global political management, directed towards the peaceful settlement of political conflicts and the containment of aggression. Such a system would necessarily be concerned not only with nuclear, but with conventional aggression, however much the Treaty might be framed in the nuclear context. No system directed to global political management and the prevention of significant changes in the regional, and hence, global balance of power can be indifferent to the mounting of a threat of such size that it could seriously threaten Australia. It would threaten too many others at the same time and would unavoidably affect the Great Powers' interests. To conceive of Australia in purely bilateral confrontation with such a major threat while such a system prevailed is politically unrealistic.
  6. We do not say that this system is bound to work or to last; only that it must attract our support. Should a major threat to Australia develop, it would only be in the event of the collapse of the system represented by the NPT and the Tripartite Declaration.7 There would be ample warning of this and opportunity to protect our interests. The provisions of the Treaty would become increasingly irrelevant. In formal terms we could exercise our right of withdrawal in good time, and very likely without significant opposition from our friends and allies. We would be unlikely to be the first to do so.
  7. On an incidental point, the fact that other countries might breach the Treaty is not of itself of overriding significance. Their motives to use their weapons in a way indirectly or directly disadvantageous to us is what counts and there would be time to assess this. Political motives do not shape up and lead to action overnight. If India, for example, went nuclear in the next few years, this would not mean that Australia was threatened.
  8. Paragraph 47. The final sentence was added at the request of the Treasury representative. Perhaps it shows how unrealistic speculation about possible future situations could become. A further point, made by the JPC, is that acquisition of a nuclear capacity by Australia would stimulate Indonesia to acquire one, or a senior nuclear ally.

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'Amendment, Review' Etc.

  1. Paragraph 77. There was prolonged discussion in the group on the duration provision, with the AAEC and Defence Science representatives holding out for a limited ten year duration. Arguments pro and con are canvassed in the paper. I might repeat the point that we should not be entering a treaty on the assumption that we could predict situations arising during the 25 year period, but with the intent of supporting an arrangement that increased the prospect that we should not need nuclear weapons during that period.

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[NAA: A1838, 680/10/2 part 2]