Indonesia’s parliament last month agreed to ratify the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This is an important political development, and it deserves attention – across the region and in Australia. The approval of ratification was done very symbolically, just ahead of the second meeting of States Parties of the TPNW at the United Nations, held last week. The meeting at UN headquarters in New York was attended by most of the TPNW’s 69 parties, as well as by representatives from 35 non-parties, including Australia as well as NATO members Belgium, Norway and Germany.
Indonesia will soon deposit its instrument of ratification at the UN, formally becoming a state party. By ratifying the TPNW, Indonesia is making it clear that it rejects the most destructive of all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons. That is good news. It’s a recognition that there are still around 12,500 nuclear weapons in existence, many of them vastly more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb, and a reminder that the world still lives under the very real – indeed growing – threat of complete annihilation.
Indonesia is a leading member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a grouping which, decades ago, made its stance against nuclear weapons clear by creating the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ). Nine of the ten ASEAN members have signed or ratified the TPNW (as has ASEAN observer Timor-Leste), but Indonesia’s ratification is especially important because it signals a clear commitment by one of the world’s largest states to work towards the global elimination of these inhumane weapons.
Indonesia is also a founding member of the 120 nation Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping which marshals considerable collective diplomatic clout on the international stage. For the great majority of non-aligned states, nuclear weapons are seen not just as weapons of horrific destruction, but also as instruments of continuing domination and exploitation. Many formerly colonised states are asking the large and powerful countries to listen to them and to consider their security preferences. They have a point: nuclear weapon states effectively hold the entire world to ransom.
Indonesia’s ratification should make Australians ask why its government remains at odds with the vast majority of its neighbours. Most of the South Pacific states, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand clearly oppose the threat of nuclear weapons. The TPNW makes these inhumane weapons illegal, as other treaties do for biological and chemical weapons, landmines, and cluster munitions.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has supported the TPNW, stating that “nuclear weapons are the most destructive, inhumane, and indiscriminate weapons ever created”, and that “the struggle for nuclear disarmament is the most important struggle for the human race”. Labor’s national policy platform, repeated in August this year, commits Australia to signing and ratifying the TPNW. But the government is yet to do so, leaving Australia now out of step with its largest neighbour and the region more broadly.
The AUKUS arrangement with the US and the UK signals a faith in the old-fashioned militarism of the Anglosphere more than the promising dynamics and peaceful potential of the region. Indonesia, Malaysia, and other states expressed concern about Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Proceeding with AUKUS makes it even more important that Australia credibly reassure the world it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons. Signing the TPNW would make that commitment concrete.
Clearly there has been pressure from the United States on Canberra not to sign. But fears of endangering the ANZUS alliance are overblown; Washington will be displeased when Australia signs the TPNW, but Canberra can remain an invaluable (conventional weapons) partner for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. Signing the TPNW does not void the ANZUS alliance, nor does it mean Australia cannot proceed with AUKUS, although this pact would have to be managed carefully.
Several US allies have already signed the TPNW and even some NATO states have explored the option of joining. Australia can take a principled stand. Nuclear weapons are immoral and threaten the existence of everyone, the environment and life on Earth.
And a closer alignment by Canberra with the views of Australia’s region will be important.
Indonesia has a population of around 280 million people and is a secular democratic country with a Muslim-majority population, the largest in the world. Its economic growth is strong, with predictions that it will be among the top five world economies within a few decades. It has a growing middle-class, with an overwhelmingly young population (a quarter are aged under 14). Indonesia is a vibrant and vital part of Australia’s local geography and will become an increasingly important trading partner. All this suggests that Canberra should be paying more attention to the security wishes of its near neighbours. By signing the TPNW, Australia will be on the right side of history and be more in sync with its region.
Indonesia and other Asia-Pacific neighbours are showing the way. It’s time to work towards a common future with them, not a future blighted by the danger of nuclear annihilation.