by Chris Lee-Gaston
Recent public, political and media focus on the politics of drones and in the highly speculative field of cyber-warfare have led me recently to do some speculation within my own topic and namely over the specific implications of nuclear power as an energy security question, within the politics of democratic nations. This article provides a brief surmise of two current examples of the critical yet often indistinct influence of energy security strategy within International Relations, both of which are approached from the perspective of relations with Asia’s principal economic and strategic power, China. Discussion of the important Australian and Japanese strategic nuclear relations to China, point towards the pervasive nature of strategic management of unqualified risks within IR: bear with me, while we dig ourselves a rabbit hole...
Japan’s Nuclear Conundrum
In a world where global warming constitutes a legitimate question for national energy and security strategy and in light of the continued influence of anti-nuclear sentiment since the Fukushima Daichii disaster, it seems logical that the debate over nuclear power in Japan remains an incendiary topic. However one of the most highly underestimated influences in this debate is the underlying strategic concern for national energy security.
In this case, I am not talking about securing sufficient future energy supplies to maintain economic growth, but rather the holistic strategic importance encompassed in ensuring national sovereignty through energy independence – an issue with unique importance for the resource-scarce import-dependent island nation. In a world where actual full-scale war could be within 5 or 6 quiet generations of becoming an anthropological topic, it remains the distinct academic responsibility of IR specialists to remind the public that Nations do and will continue to make many decisions based on the remote possibility that World War III could be around the corner.
Of course, this is not always the cornerstone of strategic policy implementation but it is definitely an omnipresent shadow over the international affairs. In the case of Japan, China is its primary adversary of concern in the region, and as recent contention over Okinawan sovereignty suggests, Sino-Nippon relations are not always rock-solid. However, the domestic discussion of policy rarely seems to draw focus on this issue – is energy security Japan's own elephant in the room?
In my own research, I am increasingly being reminded that despite a burgeoning debate over the possibility to forward a revised national energy strategy with more emphasis on renewables, toppling nuclear power remains a tall order. While the bulk of this debate hovers around the issues of rising energy costs and a possible negative-growth inducing supply crisis arising thereof (which unlike in the case of Germany, is receiving some disquieting points of affirmation), it should also be noted that on some level there exists an inherent what if kind of thinking, as described above. That is, what if a state of war were to open with China: and this leads to the inevitable question as to whether Japan can keep its lights on, without steady imports and without nuclear power?
Plainly put, Japan might not be able to give up nuclear power simply because of its national strategic reliance on nuclear power as a stockpile-friendly, semi import-independent energy source. I will not go as far as to pick over the entrails of this argument herein, but I will assert that Japan's current and future relations with China hold far more sway over the nuclear debate than is currently being given news-time globally. While anti-nuclear protests continue to make headlines internationally and waves on the streets of Tokyo, in the parliament it seems more likely that diplomatic relations with the Dragon across the sea, are casting longer shadows over the nuclear debate.
Australia's Yellow Fortune
Australia's atomic relations with China are a very different story but nevertheless, one with a similarly unquantified influence on the nation’s international diplomatic status. Mining as a whole is of great strategic importance to Australia, but it remains to be seen what the exact significance of Australia's uranium deposits will be in the future. Australia's vast and valuable Uranium deposits constitute the world's largest known reserves, and contribute around 35% to the nations overall energy exports. This figure set to grow in relation to overall exports despite the relative disfavour of nuclear developments, post-Fukushima. While of this share, the US, EU and Japan are the largest buyers; China is fast becoming a prominent partner in this economic relationship following the closing of concrete long-term export deal with China in recent years.
Australian academics such as Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, point primarily to the geo-strategic power evident in this exchange (specifically in relation to Australia's standing refusal to initiate uranium exports to India), as rivalling other political trade-offs such as proliferation concerns or even immediate economic gains. We know that this is taken into some consideration by government in the decision making process but it remains unclear how exactly this factors into eventual policy outcomes.
Nevertheless it is clear that uranium has a unique effect on the geo-political standing of Australia in the Asia-pacific region, as far as resource politics are concerned. Granted, 'yellow gold' doesn't hold the same level of power as that other black, barrelled and liquid kind, but nevertheless it is becoming increasingly important, despite continued international vacillation over the future of nuclear power.
As a preferred provider to South East-Asian nations, Australia has a client-privileged relationship, occasionally even superseding large suppliers such as Canada and Kazakhstan. While Australia reserves the right to determine the quantity of its nuclear mineral production, one need not be a fan of J.R. Tolkien to envision the relation between Australia's horde of yellow gold and the sleeping behemoth which dreams upon it: that beast being the powerful, resource-hungry nation of China.
Which begs the question, what would happen to Australia if it's national interests were no longer in line with China's lust for Yellowcake? Of course, numerous groups in Australia are busily researching such questions, but what is most difficult to quantify is to extent even the remote threat of this has an influence over policy making. Medcalf and others might suggest: as least as much as the economic or other considerations such as proliferation, traditionally enumerated in the nuclear debate: and conceivably more than we think.