The threat of AUKUS | By Sultan M Hali


The threat of AUKUS

AUKUS is a trilateral security pact between Australia, UK and the US, aimed at the US and the UK enabling Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. The pact also includes cooperation on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities”.

AUKUS does not focus on Australia’s procurement of nuclear subs, only but also supports Australian purchase of new long-range strike capabilities for its air force, navy and army. Under the pact, the US will share nuclear propulsion technology with the Royal Australian Navy, which will acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines armed with conventional weapons to be built in Australia. Australia will also extend the life of its Collins-class submarines which were due to be replaced. Simultaneously, the Aussies may consider leasing or buying nuclear-powered submarines from the US or the UK in the interim until the delivery of its future nuclear-powered submarines.

The declaration of the launch of AUKUS caused heartburn in two allies of its member nations, France and India, besides the expression of apprehension by littoral states in the Indo-Pacific region. Only two days after the announcement of AUKUS, on 17 September 2021, France recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US, with French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling the new security pact a “stab in the back”. The strong reaction was precipitated by Australia’s cancellation of the French-Australian submarine deal worth €56 billion without notice, terminating a strategic partnership between France and Australia.

Interestingly, in 2009, when the Royal Australian Navy had announced plans to replace its conventionally powered Collins-class submarines, an Australian Defence White Paper had categorically ruled out nuclear propulsion for its new submarines. In 2019, Australia signed a strategic partnership agreement with France to design and construct twelve submarines to be built in Australia. Although the project was beset by delays and cost overruns, leading to uncertainty and tension behind the scenes, in June 2021, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, who had reassured the Aussies of the “full and complete” commitment of France. Resultantly, on 30 August 2021, the French and Australian defense and foreign affairs ministers released a joint statement reaffirming the project.

Less than three weeks later, Australia decided to cancel the contract with France for the Attack-class submarines despite having already spent about $2.4 billion on the French project. Thus, the French anguish and strong reaction, although the French Ambassadors withdrawn from the US and Australia, have now returned to their posts after assurances from both host countries but the tiff with the UK persists. India, a member of Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, established in 2007, comprising India, US, Japan and Australia) ostensibly to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region, was taken by surprise with the announcement of AUKUS, fearing that Quad was sidelined.

Some Indian analysts opined that AUKUS is the betrayal of the US with France whom New Delhi considers a crucial partner in the Indian Ocean and has numerous defence deals with. A few Indian critics perceived the AUKUS being a double game with France, a member of NATO and fear that India might meet a similar fate. Objective Indian defence analysts are uneasy that the AUKUS is highly likely to trigger a crowding of nuclear attack submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean, diminishing New Delhi’s conventional underwater capability and regional supremacy, while the Australian nuclear submarine capability is likely to surpass India’s own in coming years.

Many western security specialists, scholars and politicians consider the agreement to transfer US or UK nuclear submarine technology including possibly highly enriched uranium as an act of nuclear proliferation and fear that it will set the wrong precedent. IAEA, the world’s nuclear watchdog, will have nightmares reining in Iran et-al since what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Albeit, now the U.S. Congress has taken the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy effort to overhaul U.S. export control laws in order to expedite technology cooperation needed to implement a central pillar of the AUKUS trilateral agreement with Australia and the U.K.The House passed a bill 393-4 directing the State Department and Pentagon to submit information on defence export licenses necessary to collaborate with the U.S. allies on hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. These technologies form what is known as pillar two of the AUKUS agreement, which all three countries view as critical to filling capability gaps before Australia receives U.S. and U.K. nuclear-powered submarines over the next two decades under pillar one.

Interestingly, a section of Australian citizens too is not happy with the advent of AUKUS. A demonstration was held in Melbourne last week to protest the military alliance. The event, “Truth Not War,” was held by a coalition of organisations led by the No AUKUS Coalition Victoria and the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN). The mainly older audience of between 500 and 1,000 rallied outside Melbourne’s state library. China too has expressed its grave concern and firm opposition after the U.S., the U.K. and Australia pushed forward nuclear-powered submarine cooperation and coerced the IAEA Secretariat to endorse the cooperation, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a routine press conference.

Nevertheless, the AUKUS announcement has led to heightened uncertainty in the region, evoking regional countries to prepare for consequences, likely to unfold in the future. The AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation is likely to pave the path for others to follow suit, endangering the world. Apparently, the IAEA has been pressured to invoke Article 14 of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) to make safeguards arrangements, despite the huge divergences among the international community on the interpretation and applicability of this Article.

To date, formulation and enhancement of all types of safeguards agreements by the IAEA were achieved through consultation of interested member states before being reviewed and adopted by the Board of Governors. Taking shortcuts will have a negative impact on the resolution of regional nuclear hotspot issues and may eventually lead to the collapse of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is thus, the collective duty of all member states of the IAEA to enhance the intergovernmental process and seek a way to resolve the safeguards issue with regard to the AUKUS.

—The writer is a Retired Group Captain of PAF, who has written several books on China.

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