The AUKUS deal is a trilateral security agreement forged between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to assist Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. Its announcement on September 15, 2021, has marked a crucial milestone in Australia’s foreign policy trajectory, although reactions to it have been varied.
The Components of AUKUS
The AUKUS agreement signifies a strategic union among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States for enhanced security measures. The accord has three main elements: “an agreement by the United States to sell Australia three to five Virginia-class submarines beginning in 2032; the co-development of a new AUKUS-class submarine by the United Kingdom and Australia to enter service around 2040; and a multibillion-dollar pledge by all three countries to expand the capacity of a trilateral submarine industrial base.”
The AUKUS partnership between the three nations will focus on enhancing military capabilities through the integration of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, cyber technology, and quantum frameworks. The partnership is still in its nascent stages, and its technical particulars are being ironed out. Nonetheless, some critical features of the agreement include:
- Australia’s upcoming submarines are derived from the Virginia-class model and tailored to meet the country’s unique requirements.
- They will carry traditional armaments, including missiles and torpedoes, and be fueled by nuclear reactors, allowing for extended range and endurance beyond typical diesel submarines.
- These vessels will be constructed on Australian soil while incorporating parts from American and British sources.
- The AUKUS coalition will collaborate on nuclear propulsion, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and undersea conflict.
To accommodate the submarines, Australia will need to construct new infrastructure, including ports, shipyards, and training facilities. Operating and maintaining these submarines will also necessitate significant investments by Australia in personnel training and education. The deal came for Australia at the right time. Australia’s existing Collins-class submarines are outdated and require replacement. Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS deal carries strategic significance, as it enables the nation to respond to threats in the Asia-Pacific region more effectively than before. With a substantial increase in its capabilities to deter any potential aggression, Australia’s security profile stands to be highly enhanced.
Bolstering Australian Navy’s Capabilities
The introduction of nuclear-powered submarines will enhance the Australian Navy’s capabilities significantly. The following are a few of the improvements that SSN-AUKUS will bring in comparison to the current diesel-electric submarines:
- Nuclear propulsion: Utilizing nuclear propulsion technology will greatly enhance the range and endurance capabilities of new submarines, surpassing those of diesel-electric submarines. This technological advancement enables the newly equipped vessels to conduct operations for prolonged periods without needing to refuel. Additionally, these submarines are now able to operate in previously inaccessible areas lacking refueling facilities with ease.
- Quieter operation: The implementation of nuclear propulsion paves the way for submarines with reduced noise levels compared to diesel-electric-powered ones. This feature renders them challenging to detect and facilitates their covert operation close to enemy adversaries.
- More powerful weapons: The upcoming submarines boast greater capacities for carrying cutting-edge weapons compared to the current diesel-electric models. This capacity gives them an edge to take on rival ships and submarines from much longer distances, in addition to the capacity to transport potent torpedoes.
- More advanced sensors: The upcoming submarines will feature highly improved sensors that will surpass those found in diesel-electric submarines. These sensors will enable the submarines to identify enemy ships and submarines at extended distances and will provide enhanced capability to monitor their adversary’s movements with precision.
What Benefits Does AUKUS Provide Australia?
AUKUS promises several advantages for Australia. Most notably, the agreement will enable Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, which are far more effective than the conventional submarines currently in use. Consequently, this update will greatly empower Australia to deter and respond to threats in the Asia-Pacific region.
Another benefit of the AUKUS deal is that it reinforces the existing ties between Australia and its two closest allies – the UK and the US. This increase in cooperation will enhance Australia’s overall security posture, ensuring easy access to the latest technological advancements and intelligence while bolstering defense against any potential adversaries.
Moreover, the AUKUS pact serves as a powerful message to China – indicating Australia and its allies’ unwavering commitment to preserving peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. This stance could potentially shift China’s future behavior to a more peaceful and diplomatic approach, reducing aggression and hostilities in the area.
Australia’s Balancing Act between the U.S. and China
In the wake of AUKUS, Australia can effectively mitigate China’s threat perceptions by pursuing constructive engagement with its Asian neighbor. This entails actively collaborating with China on areas of mutual interest such as climate change and economic cooperation. Moreover, Australia can achieve a more balanced security landscape in the Asia-Pacific region by forging stronger ties with other regional powers such as Japan, India, and South Korea. A proactive approach to promoting multilateralism, resolving disputes peacefully, and fostering trust and cooperation would also be instrumental in curbing rising tensions in the region. By adopting these strategic measures, Australia can not only safeguard its defense capabilities and deter potential threats but also contribute to a more stable and secure environment in the region.
In light of the AUKUS deal, Australia aims to maintain stable and prosperous relationships with both the United States and China. This can be achieved by engaging in regular, high-level dialogues to establish trust, avoid misunderstandings, and prevent miscalculations. Additionally, Australia adopts a “middle power” approach that actively collaborates with these two countries, as well as other regional players, in achieving consensus on issues concerning regional security and prosperity. Furthermore, building on economic and trade cooperation with both nations to establish mutual interests will create a foundation for long-term stability in the region. Upholding international laws and norms not only deters aggression but also promotes a rules-based order in the area. Although challenging, adopting these principles will help ensure stability and prosperity in the region.
Australia must sustain its focus on upholding a rules-based international order, a philosophy both China and the U.S. claim to support despite certain disparities. Nevertheless, Australia can take on the responsibility of mediating these discrepancies and finding a mutual ground. In addition, Australia should continue to engage with its neighboring countries including Japan, India, and Indonesia, who share similar concerns regarding China’s growth, to create a more equal and stable regional environment. Australia should possess the confidence to stand up against China when necessary, without necessarily seeking conflict, but by preserving its interests. The AUKUS agreement presents a pivotal moment in Australia’s foreign policy. It will challenge Australia’s ability to balance its interactions with the U.S. and China. Nevertheless, if the country is triumphant, it will establish a steadfast and thriving region for all.
ASEAN Countries and AUKUS
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states have varied opinions on the recently announced AUKUS partnership. While some express reservations, others show favorable support towards the alliance.
Several members of ASEAN have raised apprehensions about the formation of AUKUS, citing the potential for an arms race in the region and destabilization. Specifically, Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed unease regarding the nuclear component of AUKUS. Indonesia’s foreign ministry noted that it is observing the Australian Government’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with caution and emphasized Australia’s responsibility to uphold its nuclear non-proliferation commitments. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Yaakob identified AUKUS as a catalyst that could instigate a nuclear arms race in the Asia-Pacific.
The AUKUS initiative has received support from certain ASEAN nations who believe that it may enhance security in the region. The Philippines, for instance, has enthusiastically welcomed the agreement and has pledged to collaborate with the United States, Australia, and other regional partners to promote peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. However, other ASEAN countries, such as Singapore, have expressed mixed feelings about AUKUS – while acknowledging its rationale, they have also cautioned against contributing to an arms race in the region.
In response to the AUKUS agreement, perceptions across ASEAN nations vary. While some express support, others have anxiety over its implications. Monitoring the latest developments closely, these countries are keeping a keen eye on the situation, ready to adjust their perspectives with new information. Among these nations, Indonesia remains worried about the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines by Australia, citing its commitment to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Envisioning a possible threat to the NPT framework and a prospect of a regional arms race, Indonesia is calling for careful consideration of this new development.
Moreover, Indonesia has concerns regarding the deployment of Australian submarines in its waters. As an archipelagic state, Indonesia has complete sovereignty over its territorial waters, which heavily relies on mutual consent. The country has yet to give its approval for an Australian submarine presence within its assigned boundaries. At present, the potential effects of the AUKUS agreement on Indonesia are uncertain. Nevertheless, Indonesia has expressed concerns about the agreement and is closely observing developments.
The Concerns about AUKUS and the NPT Loophole
The AUKUS deal has sparked a debate over whether it will result in increased nuclear proliferation. While some argue that the concerns are unfounded, there are reasons to be cautious. The deal represents a divergence from the established global non-proliferation framework, and careful monitoring is essential to prevent any unwanted outcomes. Aside from nuclear proliferation, the AUKUS deal also raises concerns about its environmental impact. The nuclear submarines to be constructed and operated as part of the deal rely on radioactive nuclear fuel, which entails a complex and costly disposal process. Additionally, accidents or leaks remain a constant risk.
In adherence to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the transfer of nuclear weapons or related technology to non-nuclear-armed states is forbidden, and it prohibits non-nuclear-armed countries from seeking to acquire these weapons. The AUKUS agreement has the potential to breach the NPT by enabling Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, utilizing nuclear fuel as a part of a nuclear weapons program technology.
While the Australian government maintains that the AUKUS arrangement does not violate the NPT’s conditions, critics argue that the deal constitutes a risk of nuclear proliferation. Critics contend that the deal could create an ambiguously interpreted loophole in the NPT, allowing non-nuclear armed nations to develop nuclear weaponry.
The AUKUS submarine deal has the potential to infringe upon numerous provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Firstly, the transfer of nuclear weapons or technology to non-nuclear-weapon states is prohibited under the NPT. The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines by Australia from the United States and the United Kingdom, which use highly enriched uranium that can also be used to produce nuclear weapons, may be interpreted as a violation.
Secondly, under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon states are required to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on all nuclear activities. The AUKUS deal permits Australia to develop and operate nuclear-powered submarines without full IAEA safeguards, creating a possible loophole that may encourage other countries to pursue nuclear weapons.
Lastly, all NPT parties must work toward nuclear disarmament as specified by the Treaty. The AUKUS deal has the potential to impede this goal by escalating conflict in the Asia-Pacific region and increasing the likelihood of nuclear proliferation.
The AUKUS submarine deal may contravene specific clauses of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), namely Article I, Article II, Article III as well Article VI. The NPT requires member nations to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and prohibits non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons or materials. Additionally, states must accept safeguards and pursue disarmament negotiations in good faith. While the interpretation of the NPT is intricate, the AUKUS deal raises concerns about nuclear proliferation.
The IAEA safeguards Agreement for AUKUS
The confidential IAEA safeguards agreement of AUKUS ensures the peaceful use of nuclear material by Australia. As per the arrangement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Australia, the IAEA is authorized to verify that Australia is exclusively leveraging nuclear materials for peaceful purposes. This agreement helps maintain global security and safety.
Australia’s extensive history of collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has led to a commendable track record of adherence to safeguard agreements. In line with this, the government of Australia has expressed its unwavering commitment to the AUKUS safeguards agreement and looks forward to working hand-in-hand with the IAEA to ensure its transparent and efficient execution. IAEA maintains resolute confidence in Australia’s capacity to satisfy the requirements of the AUKUS safeguards agreement. With their team of nuclear safeguard experts and successful track record of scrutinizing compliance with safeguard agreements, IAEA is an invaluable resource to ensure efficacy. Having already verified Australia’s compliance with other safeguard agreements, including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), IAEA is uniquely equipped to help ensure the successful implementation of the AUKUS safeguards agreement.
The AUKUS safeguards agreement is a notable milestone in the global nuclear non-proliferation initiative. This agreement is a demonstration of the flexibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in responding to new challenges, and it further emphasizes its commitment to curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the agreement highlights Australia’s commitment to the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy and the prevention of nuclear weapon proliferation. Nevertheless, the AUKUS safeguards agreement has generated apprehension among experts. Specifically, doubts have been raised regarding the scarcity of transparency associated with the agreement, as well as the possibility of the agreement leading to the proliferation of nuclear technologies.
The Australian government has made a clear pledge to uphold transparency in its collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure the implementation of the agreement. Additionally, the government has firmly committed to the prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation, thereby guaranteeing that nuclear material will not be employed for any purpose other than peaceable ones. In line with this, the IAEA has also expressed its unwavering dedication to transparency and its partnership with Australia to guarantee the faithful execution of the agreement. Furthermore, the IAEA has made it clear that it will not authorize the use of nuclear material for any non-peaceful purposes by Australia.
NPT & AUKUS: Tipping Scales in Favor of Non-Violation
The existing agreement stipulates that Australia is not authorized to procure nuclear weapons. However, it does permit Australia to possess nuclear-powered submarines, which are devoid of the capacity to carry any nuclear weapons. This agreement adheres to the disarmament objectives of the NPT. Moreover, it does not impede Australia’s efforts to advance towards the complete eradication of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the agreement endorses the NPT’s goal of utilizing nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes by authorizing Australia to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful intentions, such as the powering of its submarines.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows for the transfer of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. In this context, the AUKUS agreement can be viewed as a means for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines for peaceful activities, like patrolling sea lanes and deterring aggression. Additionally, the NPT permits the development of new nuclear weapons delivery systems, which include nuclear-powered submarines. Therefore, the AUKUS alliance could also potentially assist Australia in acquiring these new nuclear weapons delivery systems, aiding in deterring aggression and defending Australia’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, the NPT also authorizes the development of new nuclear weapons technologies, such as various types of nuclear fuel. Australia can leverage the AUKUS agreement to develop new nuclear weapons technologies, which could enhance the safety and security of Australia’s nuclear power plants.
Given the complex nature of the NPT, interpretation is key when evaluating whether the AUKUS agreement violates it.
The AUKUS accord bears significant complexity, accompanied by a range of potential outcomes. At present, it is difficult to foretell the agreement’s precise implications for the international security landscape. Yet, it is indisputable that this pact could serve as a model for other nations aspiring to procure nuclear-powered submarines.
Dr. Rabia Akhtar is Director, Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore. Her analysis on AUKUS is based on her recent visit to Australia for meetings with policymakers, experts, and academics to understand the Australian rationale for an independent deterrent to mitigate its threat perceptions. The views expressed here are the author’s own, and do not represent the views and positions of the Australian government.