Implications of the AUKUS Deal
The Pulse

Implications of the AUKUS Deal

In this new analytical series, experts and senior APLN members offer their assessments of the newly announced AUKUS deal.

On September 16, the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia announced a new enhanced partnership, AUKUS, to deepen trilateral cooperation on defence and security capabilities. The agreement will allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology for the first time. Although the leaders of the three countries stressed that they will continue to meet all of their nuclear non-proliferation obligations analysts and others are expressing concerns over the broader security implications in the region and on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. APLN senior network members and experts explore the issue:

Chung-in Moon, APLN Vice-Chair, Chairman of the Sejong Institute, and the former Special Adviser of National Security and Foreign Affairs to the ROK President argues that the deal reveals US double standards, prioritizes some allies over others, is bad for non-proliferation, and doesn’t bode well for the regional order.

AUKUS: A View from Seoul by Chung-in Moon

“The formation of the AUKUS, including its nuclear-powered submarine component, is quite shocking to South Koreans on several accounts.

First, the decision reveals an American double-standard. The Trump administration turned down Seoul’s request to share technology and highly enriched uranium for its nuclear-powered submarines for the reason of nuclear non-proliferation, but the Biden administration made Australia an exception.

Second, the Biden administration has been emphasizing the cohesion of the American-led alliance system, but the formation of AUKUS teaches us that the UK and Australia must be more important allies than France and others. This hierarchical attitude could severely undermine the foundation of the American-led alliance.

Third, nuclear-powered submarines are different from nuclear-armed ones, but they are predicated on the military use of nuclear power. Such a move will bear serious negative implications for nuclear proliferation, damaging the NPT regime. It is so because Japan, South Korea, and other countries in the region can bid for nuclear-powered submarines.

Finally, the Biden administration’s decision reflects a traditional balance of power (threat)-based strategic thinking against China. It is an ill omen for regional order in the Asia-Pacific, accelerating rather than decelerating the advent of the new Cold War.”

22 September 2021

Ton Nu Thi Ninh, APLN board member and former Vietnamese Ambassador to EU, Belgium, and the Netherlands explains that it is unclear how AUKUS will affect ASEAN yet it cannot be isolated from the broader security and geopolitical context.

AUKUS: A perspective from Vietnam by Ton Nu Thi Ninh

“ASEAN welcomes a lasting, steady commitment of the US to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. The recent form of this commitment may however be open to diverse appraisals as to its implications for the region as a whole, with only one country in the region involved in AUKUS.

Dr Natalegawa has already voiced dismay that ASEAN’s demonstrated regional facilitator-convener role is being wholly disregarded. Of course, some will argue that AUKUS is a trilateral defence pact, but the defence and the military dimension cannot be wholly dissociated from the broader security and geopolitical context. Indeed, it is not clear how AUKUS will impact ASEAN, which has not been provided any hint of the intent behind any broader security roadmap attached to this abrupt move.

Meanwhile, ASEAN welcomes the European Union’s strategy for long-term, principled cooperation with the Indo-Pacific, grounded in international law. The EU has important trade and investment interests in the region, a thought-out and inclusive strategy (including the Global Gateway Initiative to offset the Belt and Road Initiative) and chose to share its vision early with ASEAN.

Afterall, the best moderation to any singular pre-eminence in the Indo-Pacific is to have several powers or power clusters engaged rationally and in concert with regional stakeholders, working for the common peace, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and its peoples.”

22 September 2021

Mely Caballero-Anthony, APLN board member and Professor of International Relations, President’s Chair in International Relations and Security Studies, and Head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore argues that AUKUS raises concerns for ASEAN states heightens nuclear security risks and heightens major power rivalry and competition in the region.

AUKUS raises questions and concerns in Southeast Asia by Mely Caballero-Anthony

“The announcement of AUKUS caught many states in Southeast Asia by surprise. The cautious statements from the region that followed are understandable given the lack of information of this new trilateral arrangement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. To be sure, new security arrangements – be it enhancing the security and defence posture of one state, particularly in acquiring new nuclear capabilities, raise a number of concerns for ASEAN states.

First, is the objective of AUKUS as the latest coalition in the Indo-Pacific. The establishment of the QUAD with US, Australia, Japan and India had already raised qualms about the future of regional order in Asia since this minilateral arrangement is perceived to contain China. Although AUKUS is but another addition to the region’s security architecture, any framework that excludes China undermines ASEAN’s approach to an inclusive, peaceful and stable order.” Read more

20 September 2021

Marty Natalegawa, APLN Chair and former Foreign Minister of Indonesia and former Ambassador to the United Nations, argues that the AUKUS decision may reduce rather than improve security in the region but that it is not too late for ASEAN to reassert its relevance.

AUKUS: A Wake-up Call for ASEAN? by Marty Natalegawa

“The decision on AUKUS strengthens the impression of a region increasingly dissected by geopolitical push and pull. The possibility of a chain reaction by other countries, not simply China, in the Indo-Pacific – noting in particular the qualitative escalation represented in the nuclear-powered submarine capability – cannot be discounted.

Escalation in regional states’ stealth underwater capability would not be a matter of disinterest to countries with strategic straits linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Less, rather than more, security may ensue. Arms build-up at a time when precious resources need be committed to overcome the threat of the pandemic and to promote economic recovery requires explanation.

While the agreement refers to nuclear “powered” rather than nuclear “armed” submarines, it adds to the perception of an Indo-Pacific lacking nuclear stability and prone to costly miscalculation. For ASEAN, the inception of AUKUS, like the revitalization of the Quad before it, reminds of the cost of its dithering and indecision on the complex and fast evolving geopolitical environment.

The forward looking and transformational initiatives of the past – precisely to anticipate and pre-empt recent developments – such as the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone and the initiation of the East Asia Summit as a forum for dialogue on strategic issues among key countries of the Indo-Pacific – have needlessly been allowed to dissipate. It is not too late for ASEAN to reassert its relevance. To proceed beyond expression of concern and hope. Instead, to rebuild mutual trust and reduce possibility of costly miscalculation in the Indo-Pacific.”

17 September 2021

Allan Behm, Head of the International and Security Affairs Program at the Australia Institute, and former senior official in Australia’s departments of Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Attorney-General’s and Defence, explains the implications on China, Russia, DPRK, and other nuclear-armed states, as well as knock-on effects on Japan and ROK.

Scott Morrison’s Giant Nuclear Election Ploy by Allan Behm

“Australia’s decision to join with the United States and the United Kingdom to build Australian long-range nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) has little to do with the defence of Australia. The aim is to make possible an Australian contribution to US battle plans against China which that country will view as profoundly threatening with implications also for war planning by Russia, North Korea and other nuclear-armed states.

Even leaving aside the fiscal profligacy and defence opportunity costs for Australia of the literal blank cheque issued by the Morrison government, the nuclear submarine decision takes Australia into the heart of naval warfighting in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Further, the Australian nuclear submarine decision will have knock-on effects in Japan and the Republic of Korea, leading them not only to move their already highly capable submarine fleets to nuclear power, but also thereby heighten the likelihood they will then equip those submarines with nuclear weapons.

For several decades the US has been concerned to negate two military advances the Chinese regard as essential protection against literally existential threats. The Australian submarines will be designed primarily to contribute to negating both of those military advances.” Read more

17 September 2021

Sharon Squassoni, Research Professor at George Washington University, Bulletin Atomic Scientists Board member, and a former senior official at the US State Department, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, argues that the US administration may not have fully considered the implications of AUKUS for the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

AUKUS is Awkward by Sharon Squassoni

“The announcement of the trilateral security partnership between the US, UK, and Australia (AUKUS) this week took some allies and adversaries by surprise. The big headline about Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK came as a shock to France, which was planning to supply $66bn worth of conventional diesel-fueled submarines to Australia. Calling the US plan “brutal,” French officials abruptly cancelled a big gala event in the US to celebrate a Revolutionary War battle and called their top naval officer home.

The pact is a clear signal to China that the US and its allies will challenge China’s provocative actions in Indo-Pacific waters but there’s more to this story than just boats. Announcements highlighted cooperation in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, but expanding US basing options across the Indo-Pacific are likely more important. Reportedly, Australia has been open to hosting more US marines, and more US warships in Perth.

Sharing nuclear submarine technology is a big sweetener, but the Biden administration may not have thought through all the implications, particularly for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Expanding the club of states that use highly-enriched uranium to fuel submarines would be a mistake for many reasons. If the security situation truly demands additional nuclear-powered submarines owned or leased by Australia, the best option would be to let them lease French nuclear submarines, which use low-enriched uranium for fuel. That would be a blow perhaps to the US and UK defense industries, but a win for transatlantic harmony and nuclear nonproliferation norms.”

17 September 2021

John Carlson, APLN member and former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, provides an overview in a commentary of the non-proliferation and safeguards aspects of the proposal for Australia to build and operate nuclear-powered submarines.

AUKUS Nuclear-Powered Submarine Deal – Non-proliferation Aspects by John Carlson

“This proposal involves nuclear propulsion only, under no circumstances will Australia pursue nuclear weapons, which would be a violation of our obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states from acquiring nuclear weapons, and nuclear-weapon states from providing any assistance in this regard. Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon states must accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on all nuclear material in their territory or under their control to verify this material is not diverted to nuclear weapons.

The NPT does not prohibit non-nuclear-weapon states from non-explosive military uses of nuclear material, the principal example being operation of naval propulsion reactors. Where nuclear material is proposed for such a non-proscribed military use, the standard NPT safeguards agreement provides for safeguards measures to be suspended while the material remains in military use. However, the non-explosive use obligation continues to apply, and safeguards measures are to immediately re-apply when the military use has ended. The state is required to make an arrangement with the IAEA to keep the IAEA informed about the material and to ensure its eventual return to safeguards.” Read more

17 September 2021

Gareth Evans, APLN Board Member and former Australian Foreign Minister, argues in a short commentary that the deal should neither be construed as a significant challenge to the global nuclear nonproliferation regime nor as another Australian over-reaction to China.

AUKUS Nuclear-Powered Submarine Deal No Cause for Concern by Gareth Evans

“Australia’s announced to decision to build nuclear-propelled submarines has already generated many criticisms from nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament activists, but I do not believe APLN should be among them. It would be a go-to-the-wall issue for our Network if it was in any way a prelude to Australia acquiring its own nuclear weapons, but that would be totally unconscionable and has been totally ruled out on all sides. It would be a matter of real non-proliferation concern if we are planning to produce our own fissile material but we are not, and I have no doubt that complete safeguards discipline will be maintained. Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see that Australia going down this narrowly defined path will in itself encourage problematic behaviour by allies or anyone else in our region or elsewhere.” Read more

16 September 2021


Image: iStock, Husayno.

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