As Fears Rise, Some Australians Seek U.S.-China Détente

Growing up at the end of the Cold War in the United States, I remember a constant low-level hum of fear about a potential war with Russia and quite possibly a nuclear war.

Russians were the villains in our movies. Mushroom clouds haunted our dreams.

Now, for many of us and maybe you, a new version of those anxieties is emerging.

Security analysts and officials have told me they believe the risk of a nuclear weapon being used somewhere — while still small — has increased to a level not seen in decades. North Korea now claims to have developed nuclear warhead​s that it can mount on its various missiles. Russia’s menacing war in Ukraine continues. At the same time, China is expanding its nuclear arsenal, leading experts to suggest we may be heading into another era of brinkmanship, like the one that marked the early rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as giant powers with cataclysmic weapons poke and prod for weakness.

As Chris Buckley, our chief China correspondent, wrote in a recent article, China’s military strategists are now “looking to nuclear weapons not only as a defensive shield, but as a potential sword — to intimidate and subjugate adversaries.”

China aims to have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, up from a few hundred now, while the United States is modernizing and bolstering its own nuclear capabilities.

Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region are trying to figure out what to do about all of this. Some officials in Seoul have floated the idea of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons, an idea the United States opposes. Washington’s allies have also been pressing it for information about nuclear protocols in the event of a standoff, the sort of thing that European allies already have through NATO.

Australia, so far, has mostly doubled down on its bond with the United States. The AUKUS security deal between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom will bring American nuclear-propelled submarines to Western Australian ports while new versions are built over the coming decades.

But there is also a renewed push by some former officials in Australia to try and bring Beijing and Washington together, seeking to build on common interests and de-escalate tensions.

Gareth Evans, who served as Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, and Bob Carr, a former premier for the state of New South Wales, recently gathered dozens of signatures for an open letter that calls on Australia to support the goal of détente, which they described as “a genuine balance of power between the United States and China, designed to avert the horror of great power conflict and secure a lasting peace for our people, our region, and the world.”

Neither China nor the United States has responded. Many of the letter’s signatories, including Evans and Carr, are Labor Party luminaries seeking to influence Australia’s current Labor government, and perhaps tilt public opinion back to a period when there was more acceptance of China’s ascendancy, which helped make Australia very rich through trade.

The pitch may be out of step with the moment. In recent polls, more than 80 percent of Australians surveyed said they did not trust China.

In an interview, Evans said he knew that building support would take time. He said his goal was to “energize a more substantive dialogue around this situation careening out of control.”

Like many others, he saw danger ahead. He said he feared that the two great powers, with their nuclear-powered militaries, could accidentally stumble into war, through a mix of excessive nationalism and a narrow-minded approach to competition around the world.

“What we need is a defusing and a need for balance,” Evans said. “There are too many fingers on too many triggers in an atmosphere of too much fear.”

Now for this week’s stories.

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