168 Minute from Dan1 to Cumes, Eastman,2 Petherbridge,3 Cook4 and Flood

Canberra, 26 March 1971


NPT: Developments since the Treaty's Entry into Force


The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons entered into force on 5th March, 1970. Australia signed the Treaty on 27th February, 1970 (and was the 97th of 98 countries which had done so before the treaty entered into force). At that time we circulated to other governments a statement setting out matters that would have to be resolved before Australia could proceed to ratification (the text of this statement is attached).5 Earlier, on 18th February, 1970, the day Cabinet decided on signature, the Prime Minister made a statement announcing the Government's decision.6

  1. The Prime Minister's statement said inter alia that the decision to sign was an expression of the Government's earnest hope that a fully satisfactory treaty could be achieved, and of its desire to help such an achievement. He added that the decision to sign was not to be taken as a decision to ratify.
  2. These statements said inter alia that the Australian Government:
    1. believed that a condition of an effective treaty was that it should attract a necessary degree of support;
    2. attached importance to the fact that the Treaty would in no way inhibit the research, development and use of nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes. It also considered it essential that the inspection and safeguards arrangements (still being worked out in the IAEA) should not constitute an obstacle to a nation's economic development, and should be effective in ensuring that any breaches of the Treaty would be detected.
    Developments in relation to the Government's reservations.
  3. The question of safeguards is the responsibility of the Economic Policy Branch.
  4. As for the other major reservation expressed by the Australia Government, i.e. that the NPT to be an effective treaty should attract 'a necessary degree of support', there has been no significant change. When the treaty entered into force in March 1970 (one week after Australia signed) 47 countries had ratified it. Up to the end of February 1971 a total of 64 countries had ratified. But none of those additional 17 countries are regarded by us as 'significant'. That is, we are interested only in those States:
    1. which have an existing nuclear capability (France, Communist China);
    2. which have an existing or future potential for such capability (Argentina, Brazil, Japan, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, Indonesia, West Germany, Belgium, Italy); and
    3. other Asian nations generally (North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand).
  5. Of the abovementioned countries, none have ratified the treaty and France, Communist China, Argentina, Brazil, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, North Korea, North Vietnam and Thailand have not even signed it. Of the countries in the Asian region only the Republic of China, New Zealand, Laos, Malaysia and Nepal have ratified the NPT.


  1. It is my understanding that Cabinet (or at least a section of it) in deciding that Australia should sign the NPT recognised that signature would enhance prospects for assistance from others (e.g. Britain, Canada, U.S.) for our nuclear programme for peaceful purposes (and that signature would still enable us to develop considerably our capability in nuclear technology without breaching the treaty). In other words, signature would allow us to reach a point where we could produce nuclear weapons if it were considered in our national interest to do so.
  2. Irrespective of whether my understanding of Cabinet's real intentions is correct or not, it is my own view that this should be our policy objective. We should not ratify the treaty (even if the countries mentioned in paragraph 5 above do so—although this possibility is extremely remote) and we should build up our capacity in nuclear technology to a point where we could manufacture nuclear weapons if the need arose. We cannot rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. We may find it imperative at some future time to have our own nuclear deterrence against for instance a possible Chinese attack (and nuclear blackmail).
  3. At the same time, it is in our interest to continue to support publicly the NPT (and in this respect our record is good). I agree with the AAEC and Professor Baxter that we should not ratify the treaty but I do not approve of their tendency to seek to cast doubts publicly on the value of the NPT and of Australia's real intentions vis-a-vis the treaty. (I have had to make suitable changes to draft speeches by the AAEC Chairman on more than one occasion.) Sir Philip Baxter's comment at a meeting in the Department on 9 March 1971 about 'Australia's position of some aloofness towards the Treaty'7 reflects his own and the AAEC's attitude-not Australia's official position. The Government's statement of 27 February 19708 said in this respect that Australia 'supports effective international measures to counter the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction' and that Australia 'will co-operate closely with other governments in seeking clarifications and understandings in relation to those matters which must be resolved before Australia could proceed to ratification, being convinced that a treaty which was truly effective in preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons would be a major contribution to the security of the world as a whole'. We have supported U.N. resolutions commending the NPT. Moreover, Australia has taken an active part from the outset in the negotiations within the IAEA on NPT safeguards, although we are not a party to the NPT.
  4. We should continue to take an active role in disarmament issues in the United Nations because this is helpful to our foreign policy objectives generally. But a corollary of this is the need for Australia to proceed as unobtrusively as possible on a nuclear programme for peaceful purposes which could one day play a key role in Australia's defence.

[NAA: A1838, 919/10/5 part 33]