International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
Implications of AUKUS on nuclear non-proliferation
The geopolitical rivalry between China and regional adversaries is intensifying as China is seeking to assert its power more robustly in the Indo-pacific region. This has compelled the China's adversaries to gang up in a bid to counter the expansionist geopolitical scheme of China. China and Australia have engaged in vicious rhetoric against one another.
Australia is a member country of QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogues). The grouping embodies the collective aim of the countries in the Indo-pacific region in countering Chinese wolf-warrior diplomacy in South China Sea. Besides, the grouping also serve as a vehicle in projecting United States foreign policy goals in the Indo-pacific region .The United States in the last decade is actively pursuing a foreign policy which seeks to shift is geopolitical pivot from Atlantic region to the Indo-pacific region in a bid to address the challenges to its predominant position in the region.
Therefore, there seem to a convergence of the interest between Quad members in countering the threat of China which is growing increasingly adversarial in the South-China sea destabilizing the status-quo of the region to the detriment of the regional actors of the Indo-pacific.
In the context of increasing geopolitical whirlwind, the recent announcement of three powers resolve manifested in AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) is momentous for the future of the security dynamics in the region. AUKUS, which will supplant the Australian submarine deal with France, seek to enable Australia with the nuclear submarine technology to ward off the threats in the region. While not mentioned in collective statements, it can however be inferred that AUKUS seek to curtail the Chinese naval power in the south-china sea and the peripheral region and will serve as a expedient conduit of safeguarding United States foreign policy goals in the region.
However, these submarines will be powered by nuclear reactor which will be detrimental to the prevailing nuclear non-proliferation regime that seeks to dissuade countries in pursuing the nuclear technology in fear that it will greatly destabilize the security of the world. The cornerstone treaty in the nuclear non-proliferation regime is the NPT (Non-proliferation Treaty) which strives to avert the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology and promote cooperation in the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy and to accelerate the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.
The Treaty represents the lone binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States. The treaty was formalized in 1970 and since then served as shield against growth of the nuclear capability and thus contributed to the international peace and stability. The treaty forbids five nuclear countries to supply the nuclear materials to other non-nuclear countries. However, the treaty doesn't prejudice the "inalienable right" of the countries to utilize nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. To ensure the peaceful utilization of the nuclear technology, NPT enshrines the "safeguards" clause and entrust IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association) with the responsibility of inspection of the individual countries compliance with the NPT regime.
However, NPT's safeguard regime is not devoid of loopholes and some cleavages of the NPT regime has been exploited by different countries time to time in order to covertly attain nuclear capabilities. For example, the NPT does not outlaw non-nuclear-weapon states from building or operating nuclear-powered ships. IAEA cannot safeguard naval reactors (especially on submarines that are clandestine and impervious). Hence, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (the IAEA's basic safeguards agreement) allows non-nuclear weapon states to withdraw nuclear material from safeguards for utilization in a "non-proscribed military activity," which is, naval reactors.
This is a flagrant drawback of IAEA safeguards. To date, however, naval reactors have been operated only six countries in the world that have nuclear submarines, including China, the US, Russia, the UK, France, and India, all of which possess nuclear weapons as well as they are either formally nuclear-weapon states or non-signatories to the NPT (in the case of India). As a result, since the institution of Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement nearly fifty years ago, no non-nuclear-weapon state has ever exploited this loophole.
Now, it is the United States which is spearheading the nuclear-submarine deal. This convenient US policy with regards to the nuclear submarine issues is a sheer manifestation of the duplicity and double-standard of the United States.
What is disquieting is the fact that both United States and United Kingdom possess only Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) and lacks Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) technology. Therefore, if US and UK shifts the nuclear reactor to Australia it will undoubtedly be fuelled by HEU which will heighten concern as the HEU can be used in the development of the nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the announcement of the AUKUS deal poses a disastrous threat to the nuclear non-proliferation regimes that have been acted as a bulwark against the nuclear intentions of would-be proliferators. Besides, the AUKUS deal represents a glaring display of double-standard by the United States as despite US plan to support Australia in deployment of nuclear reactor, US vigorously opposed similar development plan by other countries.
Furthermore, the AUKUS deal is poised to set in motion a disastrous cascade of arm race which will have "escalatory effects" and therefore be inimical to the peace and stability of the Indo-pacific region by incentivizing the malicious actors of the region to develop similar capabilities citing the case of Australia as a pretext. Therefore, the AUKUS deal set a worrisome precedent for the future of nuclear capabilities and concerned countries would be scrupulous in reassessing this defence deal.
The writer is a student,
Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka