After signing the AUKUS security pact, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison announced that his country intends to acquire American nuclear-powered submarines. The head of government assured that “he does not intend to possess nuclear weapons and will continue to fulfill all obligations in the area of non-proliferation”.
In cooperation with the US and the UK, Canberra is to build a nuclear submarine fleet of at least eight units, Morison said after Thursday’s virtual meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden.
As the media indicates, the intention to switch to nuclear-powered submarines means cancellation of the billion-dollar contract signed in 2016 for the purchase of French conventional submarines. It also poses challenges both in the technological and geopolitical sense – threatening to worsen relations with China.
Breaking the taboo
“With one decision, Morisson broke several political taboos,” reported the AFP agency. It is about breaking the nuclear power ban and a possible increase in military tension in relations with China.
Thursday’s agreement assumes that Australia will have access to American technologies, unavailable even to such close US allies as Israel, AFP emphasized.
Experts cited by the agency said it also marked a close alliance with the US and the UK for the coming decades, but at the same time “puts middle-class Australia at the center of growing tensions between the heavyweights Washington and Beijing.” “Not everyone sees it as a smart move,” commented AFP.
According to expert Sam Roggeveen of the Sydney’s Lowy Institute, this decision will be seen as a step against China, and it will come as no surprise if they do not take it well. In addition, the new project – he acknowledged – raises questions about the current nuclear ban, and it will certainly spark a heated debate within the country and among its Pacific neighbors skeptical.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Thursday that Australia, the UK and the US had informed it of a security pact that would allow Australia to acquire nuclear submarines, and said both sides were planning talks.
The IAEA monitors all nuclear substances in countries that, like Australia, have ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to ensure that they are not used in the production of nuclear weapons.
So far, only five nuclear-armed countries under the NPT – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – and India, which has not signed the NPT, have come into possession of nuclear-powered submarines.
The possession of submarines by other NPT signatory countries than the five countries mentioned is risky, as they are military units designed so that they cannot be detected, and often do not have access to IAEA inspectors. However, it is possible to temporarily cut off the fuel for submarines under the supervision of the IAEA in the event of a prior agreement with the Agency.
The key goal of cooperation
The IAEA said in a statement that the three states ensured that a key objective of cooperation with Australia is to maintain “strict nuclear non-proliferation principles and Australia’s exemplary non-proliferation standards” and that they will communicate with the IAEA in the coming months.
“The IAEA will contact them on this matter in accordance with its statutory competences and in line with their safeguards agreements with the Agency,” the agency said.
Main photo source: EPA / YONHAP / PAP