The ‘Secret’ AUKUS Pact: Significant Indicators
Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Published on 9th October 2021)
In a completely surprise move US formally announced on 15th of last month (September) the defence pact between US, UK and Australia called AUKUS; according to which US and UK will assist Australia in developing nuclear powered submarines. That announcement greatly angered French government, because Australia already had with France a USD 50 billion defence pact in which France had to assist Australia in production of submarines – according to the media brief dated 11 February 2019 of the office of Australia’s Prime Minister, under that contractual pact France was to assist Australia in designing and building “regionally superior submarines” (1). However, now that contract has to be scraped. There was much media coverage about it, but now the France–US diplomatic brawl about AUKUS appears to have settled down. Factually, however, there are many aspects of this ‘secrecy–shrouded’ pact which indicate its serious ‘brewing’ implications. Brief explanation of those aspects follows.
a. There is no explanation as to why formulation of this pact, which obviously must have taken quite some time in negotiations, was kept so secret.
In that context, Patricia A. O’Brien (Visiting Fellow of Department of Pacific Affairs Australian National University, and Adjunct Professor of Asian Studies Program Georgetown University) has also asserted in her article, “There is much to unpack from this far–reaching announcement. It was only known publicly that a major announcement was coming less than 24 hours beforehand. —-Yet the public of the three nations were kept in the dark about what was afoot, and were instead presented a fait d’accompli” (2).
Obviously any explanation, quoting the necessity of secrecy to avoid a diplomatic flare up with France, is least logical; because announcement of that pact had to be made in any case.
Hence it appears quite logical that the most probable necessity of that secrecy was of keeping secret details relating to the ‘nuclear element’ of that pact – i.e. details regarding transfer of nuclear technology, supply of nuclear fuel, etc. to France by US and
b. According to 16th of last month (September) report by Tokyo, Japan–based international news magazine The Diplomat, (italics added for highlighting) the first AUKUS submarine “will reportedly be launched by the end of 2039”; and that, “Australia will become the seventh country to field such assets and the very first non–nuclear weapon state to do so, with US reactors using weapons–grade uranium expected to power the new vessels” (3).
There can be only one explanation for such a long period – i.e. that much time is required for US–UK combine for developing in Australia the essential infrastructure and nuclear fuel production facilities for the application of the transferred nuclear technology.
Additionally, the report that US reactors’ weapons–grade uranium is expected to be used to power these AUKUS submarines, clearly shows that the most likely intent of US is to ‘nuclearise’ Australia, ultimately making it a nuclear weapon state. These inferences also confirm the abovementioned inference relating to the element of secrecy in AUKUS pact.
c.The AUKUS pact also is most likely to violate the Treaty on the Non–Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as NPT) and Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Both are international treaties.
Objective of NPT is “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology” —–. (4); as for TPNW, “For those nations that are party to it, the treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities. For nuclear armed states joining the treaty, it provides for a time–bound framework for negotiations leading to the verified and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons programme”. (5)
Obviously, all three members of AUKUS i.e. US, UK and Australia are going to violate both the international treaties NPT and TPNW.
That aspect has been highlighted by many credible scientists and analysts, to quote just few:
The scientist, analyst George Moore and Frank N Von Hippel in their article, published by US’ newspaper The Hill dated 22nd of last month, have highlighted that: (i) US and UK nuclear–powered submarines use weapons–grade highly–enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel, an obvious presumption is that Australian submarines too will be fueled with HEU drawn from the US Cold War surplus; and that (ii) since Australia does not have a commercial nuclear power program (it has a research reactor) and no military support facilities for nuclear–powered vessels, it will probably has to rely initially on US or UK for both personnel training and support for nuclear infrastructure development. The authors have therefore asserted that any beneficial impact (of AUKUS) on China will be offset by the negative impacts on the nuclear weapons nonproliferation regimes; and thus other non–nuclear armed states such as South Korea and Iran are likely to be incentivized to acquire nuclear–powered attack submarines from US or UK, or perhaps from Russia or China (6)
John Yoo (professor at University of California Berkley and nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC–based think tank American Enterprise Institute, and Ivana Stradner (visiting research fellow of the same institute) have also commented on this aspect in their article, published on 30th of last month by the Pentagon and Hill staff desired media Real Clear Defense (RCD). In that article they have asserted, “While the deal would transfer the technology for stealthy submarines, the material and know–how represent the spread of crucial elements of nuclear weapons construction, even though Australia has no plans to arm” (7)
d.There is the need to assess whether France may be expected to accept formulation of AUKUS as fait accompli; and if not, what further course of action it is likely to undertake.
In that context it is important to note that it is not due to the financial loss caused by Australia scraping France’ submarine contractual pact because of which France is so upset. Factually, it is the serious blow to France’ important geopolitical and geoeconomic interests in Indo–Pacific region, caused by the scraping of that contractual pact and AUKUS shoving off France’ geopolitical stature in the region, which has caused France’ anger. That aspect is thus more likely to lead France to counter the adverse effects of this US–UK–Australia move, and undertake appropriate measures to remedy the damage caused to France’ geopolitical stature in Indo–Pacific region.
The official version of importance of Indo–Pacific region is available in France’ Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs’ publication. That publication titled “Indo–Pacific Region: a priority for France”. In it the assertion of France’ government provides clear understanding of France’ strategy in Indo–Pacific region: (italics added for highlighting) “In an international context marked by uncertainty and the increase in unilateralism, France’s priority is to propose an alternative: a stable, multipolar order based on the rule of law and free movement, and fair and efficient multilateralism. The Indo–Pacific region is at the heart of this strategy“. The publication has also highlighted that France’ presence in Indo–Pacific is reflected by its Indo–Pacific overseas territories, 93 % of France’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) located in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and 1. 5 million French people as well as 8, 000 French soldiers present in the region. (8)
Further details about France’ geopolitical and geoeconomic stature in Indo–Pacific have also been highlighted in an article of Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies of 6th of last month.
This article has also provided following map of France’ Indo–Pacific territories.
(The shaded blobs in this map show France’ Indo–Pacific territories and EEZ)
In the context of geopolitics, that article highlights that: “France also relies on joint regional commands. These are: Commander of the French Armed Forces in the South of the Indian Ocean (COMSUP FAZSOI), Commander of the French Armed Forces in New Caledonia (COMSUP FANC), Commander of the French Armed Forces in French Polynesia and Commander of the Pacific Ocean maritime zone (COMSUP FAPF/ALPACI), Commander of the French Armed Forces in the United Arab Emirates and Commander of the Indian Ocean maritime zone (COMFOR FFEAU/ALINDIEN) and Commander of the French Armed Forces in Djibouti (COMFOR FFDJ). Permanently, 7,000 personnel are stationed throughout the whole area: 4,100 in the Indian Ocean and 2,900 in the Pacific Ocean”; and, in the context of geoeconomic the article informs: “Economic relations between France and the Indo–Pacific region have increased significantly in recent years. More than 1/3 of France’s total exports to non–European Union go to countries of the region. France’s foreign direct investments reached 320 billion euros in 2018. This means that has increase of 75% since 2008”. (9)
However, when trying to discern the likely counter measure which may be taken by France, it is significant to keep in mind that:
- France is not strong enough to openly contest the US–led AUKUS conundrum, because US still holds the unchallengeable super power status; as also,
- Not all members of European Union (EU) are in support of France’ angry reaction to scraping of the France–Australia submarine pact by Australia and formulation of US–led AUKUS. That fact was clearly reflected in the European press review published by eurotopics dated 21st of last month.
Thus despite the strength of its geopolitical and geoeconomic stature in Indo–Pacific region, France does not have the capability to openly confront this US–led AUKUS move because of France’ lack of enough international support in this mater.
However, since AUKUS is factually going to entail nuclear proliferation, US too is not expected to be free of opposition in this matter from most of the major powers, as also from most countries of Indo–Pacific region.
In the context of Indo–Pacific countries’ opposition to the US–led AUKUS nuclear submarines arrangement for Australia, it has been clearly indicated by many countries of that region. Reports regarding that opposition have been published by many Indo–Pacific media outlets. Extracts from some of those reports are mentioned below.
- Immediately after the announcement of AUKUS, on 16th of last month, Radio Newzealand (RNZ) reported that Newzealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, “said Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines would not be allowed to enter into New Zealand’s internal waters.”Our legislation means that … no vessel that is wholly or fully powered by nuclear energy is able to enter into our internal waters. In fact that is a position that has been held across parties for a long period of time” (10)
- On 20th of last month, Japan’s government– owned public broadcaster NHK reported that South Asian countries are voicing concern that AUKUS may escalate arms race and raise tension in the region; ——Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement conveying Indonesia’s deep concern about the continuing arms race and power projection in the region; Philippine National Defence Secretary stressed Philippine’s stance of neutrality and maintaining good relation with all countries in the region; ——- and that, AUKUS is likely to be discussed in ASEAN summit due to be scheduled in late October. (11)
- The Australia–based news/reports media outlet THE CONVERSATION reported on 20th of last month that about AUKUS in particular Indonesia and Malaysia have come out strongly against Australia getting nuclear submarines through AUKUS; and that even Australia’s most reliable ally Singapore has expressed concern. (12)
As far as the possible course of action to be undertaken by France, the Paris–based French Think Tank Institut Montaigne in its article titled “After AUKUS: How Could France Reboot its Indo–Pacific Strategy?” dated 4th of this month, has suggested that France should: (i) tone down its rhetoric, (ii) must bid adieu to any hope of remaining in the ‘Anglosphere’, (iii) entirely rely on the European Union (EU) – during its presidency of EU in 2022 try to operationalise EU’s new Indo–Pacific Strategy, (iv) increase its dialogue for expansion of soft power in the region, (v) diversify its portfolio of strategic partnership with Singapore, Indonesian and Vietnam, and establish such partnership with Malaysia and South Korea. All these suggestions basically contain the recommendation that France should not adopt a confrontational approach; rather it should focus on the approach of further strengthening its geopolitical and geoeconomic stature in the Indo–Pacific region through extension of its soft power and enlarging the network of its strategic partnerships in the region. However this article has also recommended that in view of US–UK precedent (of supplying nuclear submarines to Australia) France too should not have any reservation now in supplying nuclear submarines to interested states (13). On the whole therefore, this article has recommended that instead of a clearly defensive or clearly offensive approach, France should adopt the ‘vibrant’ approach through application of the recommended actions.
As for the aspect of proliferation of nuclear material and technology in open violation of NPT and TPNW by US and UK in this AUKUS pact, the matter is expected to draw word attention when AUKUS–required supply of these to Australia commence. However US and UK are not expected to pay heed to any objection raised against it – as was done by US and UK in the case of their blatant lie of weapons of mass destruction as an excuse for the invasion of Iraq.
This precedent of US and UK proliferating nuclear material and technology to Australia in this AUKUS nuclear submarine deal will certainly encourage other ‘nuclear countries’, including France, to develop such deals with the desirous countries.
France is more likely to succeed in protecting, and may be further strengthening, its geopolitical and geoeconomic stature in the Indo–Pacific region by extending its soft power and enlarging the network of its strategic alliances in the region.
This act of nuclear proliferation by US and UK may cause divisiveness in the dynamics of the already polarising European Union (EU).
(1).Document of the office of Prime Mister of Australia.
(2). Melbourne, Australia–based network of media outlets THE CONVERSATION. https://theconversation.com/the-aukus-pact-born-in-secrecy-will-have-huge-implications-for-australia-and-the-region-168065