“The stationing of nuclear weapons in Australia is prohibited by the South Pacific Nuclear-free Zone Treaty to which Australia is fully committed,” Moriarty said.
“There is no impediment under this treaty or the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to the visit of foreign aircraft to Australian airfields or transit of Australia’s airspace, including in the context of our training and exercise programs and Australia’s force posture co-operation program with the United States.”
The B-52 is a long-range, heavy bomber that can carry out ocean surveillance and anti-ship operations and “can carry nuclear or precision guided conventional ordnance”, according to the US government.
Moriarty said American bombers have been visiting Australia since the early 1980s, and conducting training operations in the country since 2005.
Greens defence spokesman David Shoebridge said: “It is highly alarming that Australian military facilities are being made available for the US to launch its nuclear-capable bombers.
“This decision not only makes us a nuclear target – it further erodes our sovereignty.
“The US has made it clear it won’t tell anyone when their B-52’s are nuclear armed or not. This leaves Australia in the dark about our role in the USA’s global nuclear strategy.”
Defence Minister Richard Marles said that while Australia had agreed to an increased tempo of American rotations in northern Australia, there had been no change in policy regarding the presence of nuclear-armed weapons.
“America maintains a policy of ambiguity in terms of the nature of assets that are on their platforms and they do that so as to amplify their extended nuclear deterrence,” he told the ABC.
Asked whether US nuclear-armed bombers should be allowed in Australia, opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie said: “Of course, we want to see a greater presence of the American military in the Indo-Pacific.”
In his final scheduled speech before taking up his post as ambassador to Washington, Kevin Rudd told an audience in Brisbane on Wednesday night that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s less hawkish recent language “did not represent a change in China’s enduring strategic objective of continuing to improve the China-US balance of power in Beijing’s favour to make it possible to secure Taiwan by force at a time of Beijing’s choosing”.
“Indeed, the structural tensions in the US-China relationship over Taiwan will continue,” Rudd told the University of Queensland, speaking in a personal capacity as president of the Asia Society.
“This will likely manifest in continued and increasing Chinese air force crossings of the median line in the Taiwan Strait.”
Malcolm Davis, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said US nuclear-capable ships had previously docked in Australian ports, and nuclear-capable planes had operated out of Australian air bases.
“This is the US doing what it needs to do to deter a rising China,” he said.
“I don’t see this as escalatory or a provocative move in any way. China is rapidly expanding its nuclear capabilities and is refusing to engage in arms control regulations.”
Other defence experts privately suggested the US was unlikely to transit nuclear-armed bombers through Australia given the country does not have facilities specifically equipped to store and maintain such weapons.
Using nuclear-armed weapons in overseas military training exercises would be extremely risky and therefore unlikely, the experts added.
When the ABC’s Four Corners revealed the plan to build dedicated facilities for the B-52s in October, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “Such a move by the US and Australia escalates regional tensions, gravely undermines regional peace and stability, and may trigger an arms race in the region.”
Greens foreign affairs spokesman Jordan Steele-John said: “Nuclear-capable B-52 bombers have no place on Australian bases, on Australian shores or in Australian airspace. They are an offensive weapon that will destabilise our region.”
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