Australia will soon become the first non-nuclear nation to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, this must not interfere with the non-proliferation system.
AUKUS: aspects worth considering
The announcement of the strategic partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – hence the acronym AUKUS – has sparked many reactions, even though the collaboration on defence matters between the three nations is not new.
For decades, they have been part of the Five Eyes partnership, a multilateral agreement that also includes New Zealand and Canada for the sharing of SIGINT (or signals intelligence, which concerns the capture and evaluation of any kind of electromagnetic signal).
The agreement unveils the aim of containing China’s expansion in Southeast Asia, as Beijing is combining economic growth with rapid development of its military capabilities, and is also continuously confirming itself as the technological superpower, due to cybersecurity skills, artificial intelligence capabilities, digital surveillance, and quantum technology resources…
In relation to this perceived threat, the first provision of the agreement is to support Australia in the deployment of nuclear-powered submarines for deterrence purposes. So far, only six countries have operated with these means: the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and India.
These submarines bring a significant strategic advantage for those who deploy them, because the electric motor powered by a nuclear fission reactor for propulsion allows greater autonomy at sea. However, when dealing with nuclear power (even when, as in this case, reference is made to energy rather than weapons) it is fundamental to evaluate and minimize the risk that behind the peaceful use of energy it is hidden the scope of producing nuclear weapons.
Non-proliferation is a priority!
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT – available here), represents a milestone for international cooperation on the matter. It is based on three principles: disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear power. The Treaty, flanked by bilateral and multilateral agreements, and supported by the controls of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – aimed at identifying any deviation from the peaceful use of nuclear material also through early warning systems – led several nations to disengage from nuclear programs in the last decades.
In the 1960s at least 23 states pursued these programs, but to date, the figure has been reduced to 9 nations: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are considered ” nuclear nations “.
Concerning AUKUS, the submarines that will be deployed from Australia develop a precedent that must be carefully evaluated. Australia, in fact, will be the first “non-nuclear” nation in possession of these armaments, hence a loophole must be found to make sure that these submarines do not interfere with the controls of the IAEA, agency which, albeit independent, reports on developments in the field of non-nuclear proliferation to both the General Assembly and the UN Security Council.
The risk of Australia misusing these materials is very low, but “[i]n the future, would-be proliferators could use naval reactor programs as cover for the development of nuclear weapons ” affirms James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
To prevent this, technical negotiations between the AUKUS members and the IAEA will soon take place in order to develop a system that does not jeopardize the non-proliferation regime that has hitherto prevented a nuclear arms race from taking place, rather favoring the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy.
This episode makes us reflect on the need for the system to become as resilient as possible, since only resilience would make it possible to cope with unexpected scenarios (such as the near-sudden possession of nuclear energy by a non-nuclear country). It is necessary to promote international cooperation in this area in order to cope with the new enhancements.
Eventually, AUKUS could be an opportunity: the agreements that will be made to limit unwanted developments in the Indo Pacific will also serve as a record to protect the non-proliferation system should other nations make similar choices. Therefore, it is essential to consider not just this specific instance but rather all the possible aspects when negotiating with the members of the partnership.
Indeed, deterrence can be very valuable for national defense, but is fundamental that all the actors prioritize non-proliferation, promoting transparency and dialogue to encourage disarmament, as per the terms of the Treaty.