AUKUS Trilateral Alliance and Non-Proliferation Regime

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Australia, United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) signed a trilateral security partnership dubbed AUKUS. According to the security partnership pact, it would cooperate in multiple areas including share artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region. One of the alarming components of this tactical coalition is that Washington and London will assist Canberra with creating nuclear-powered submarines. This move also violated the norms of the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime (NPR). The trade of nuclear-powered submarines to a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) has set a new trend that could lead other countries to engage in similar activities for their interest consequently weakening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Under the NPR, it is prohibited to sell nuclear-related technologies and materials to the NNWS. The US and UK’s commitments towards nuclear nonproliferation norms have raised the question regarding the rationality of NPR.

Australia is a non-nuclear-weapon state and the signatory to the NPT. Despite having one of the world’s largest uranium reserves it has for now refrained from building nuclear weapons and has reiterated its commitment to adhere to the international standards of safety and security of nuclear materials and honor its obligations as a NNWS. The nuclear-powered submarines being acquired by Australia are different from nuclear-capable ballistic missile-carrying submarines, but also it does carry considerable proliferation perils.

The paragraph of Article III of the NPT states that each member party to the Treaty undertakes not to provide special fissionable material to any non-nuclear-weapon State unless subject to various safeguards. The International Atomic Energy Agency has no authority to supervise nuclear material for submarines because of their military implications, which has objectively created conditions for Australia to make nuclear weapons. In past, Australia had tried to build its nuclear arsenal and in 1952 the UK conducted its first nuclear test in Australia.

The AUKUS trilateral may lead to the proliferation of uranium enrichment technology. Washington and London’s nuclear-powered submarines run on highly enriched uranium, while Canberra is rich in uranium deposits.

Whether it operates on Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) based power reactors. If Australia is allowed to build its own nuclear fuel cycle service to fuel its submarines, there could also be a temptation to acquire nuclear weapons in the future and it will negatively impact the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. Since Australia can openly acquire nuclear materials by developing nuclear-powered submarines, it may encourage other US allies to demand similar concessions and build their covert nuclear capacity-resulting in the endless risks of nuclear proliferation on our living planet.

Consequently, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, James Acton, called this AUKUS pact and actions of these three states “a terrible precedent.” And, finally, the trilateral security partnership is almost certain to trigger a regional arms race.

Australia’s peace record in the Indo-Pacific region is not Impeccable. Therefore, Australia’s enhanced underwater attack capability is no good news for its neighbors that may be forced into a vicious circle of the arms race to protect their national security. The latest changes in nuclear policies of the US and the UK indicate that these countries have done has disappointed the world.

US President Joe Biden once campaigned in his election campaign to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the US security policy. However, less than eight months after entering the White House, he is eating his campaign pledge.

In March this year, the same UK acted the country accustomed its nuclear strategy drastically and took a significant step backward in its nuclear arms control, not only increased its nuclear weapon stockpile cap from 180 to 260 warheads but moved to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The action of the AUKUS states is tumultuous and challenges the bottom line of nuclear non-proliferation. Although Australia has committed that it would continue to follow “to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measure.” But these assurances, there are hazards associated with maintaining, operating nuclear-powered submarines by a country that is not Nuclear State and does not have sufficient expertise in the nuclear fuel cycle services.

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