Defence strategists have begun considering how AUKUS, the Australia-US-UK nuclear submarine project, will ultimately impact on New Zealand. In broad terms, it effectively welds Canberra tightly to the US in strategic and political affairs.
But there are questions whether the deal might run foul of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Wellington and Canberra are linked by closer defence relations. A joint statement issued in 2018 says:
As close neighbours and allies, we have a mutual commitment to support each other’s security, closely coordinate our efforts in the South Pacific, and maintain a shared focus on the security and stability of our broader region. The formal expression of our alliance and security partnership is found in the 1944 Canberra Pact, ANZUS Treaty and through Australia – New Zealand Closer Defence Relations instigated in 1991.
However, there is an emerging view that AUKUS will inevitably change the nature of the relationship. The new submarines will provide the RAN with a global reach across the oceans of the world, far beyond the purely regional reach of the RAN’s current diesel-electric submarines.
In Wellington, no-one yet grasps the full impact of the decision.
There are warning signs ahead. China has already condemned the submarine pact and says Australia is reinventing the old cold war. Beijing never stands still and analysts understand the Chinese government is already looking at ways to make life even more difficult in the Indo-Pacific.
It might use NZ’s well-known anti-nuclear stance and attempt to try and drive a wedge between NZ and Australia – and the US and UK. This will make life difficult to Cabinet ministers who have only recently adjusted to the new realities of Chinese tactics in the region.
Trade may be questioned. China may step up its activities in the South Pacific.
There is also the question of whether the deal will compromise Australia’s membership of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970. The NPT is regarded as a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.
Article II of the treaty requires non-nuclear-weapon states to pledge not to acquire, nor exercise control over, nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices and not to seek or receive assistance in the manufacture of such devices.
Article III is the tricky one. Non-nuclear-weapon states pledge to accept International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to verify that their nuclear activities “serve only peaceful purposes.” It is stretching a long bow to assert that nuclear attack submarines fall into this category.
Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison all maintain the new submarines will be conventional weapons only. This should avert a challenge under the article whereby the five nuclear weapons states – China, France, the UK, the US and Russia – have agreed not to transfer “nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” and “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce” a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) to acquire nuclear weapons.
The submarines are some time off. Addressing a recent conference, Admiral Mike Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations in the US Navy, said building Australia’s fleet of nuclear attack submarines could take decades to both design the boats and create the shipbuilding capacity and adequate oversight to support the effort.
AUKUS has established a framework that has launched an 18-month study effort to outline the scope of what the three countries need to start the Royal Australian Navy programme.
“This is everything from a defense industrial base in Australia, to a community inside the Australian Navy that’s able to man, train and equip those submarines to sustain them, to the oversight mechanism similar to what we have in the United States Navy to oversee those nuclear-powered vessels.
“This is a very long-term effort that’ll be decades before the submarine goes in the water, it could be. I don’t see this as a short-term timeline.”
Gilday hailed AUKUS as a “brilliant stroke with respect to our posture in the Pacific, particularly visa vie China.”
The admiral’s long timeline only reinforces a developing view in Washington that Australia’s naval ship building capacity, which can turn out frigates and destroyers, will find the submarines too great a step up in everything from assembling skills and designing the shipyard to build the nuclear attack submarines which are massive vessels.
There are also concerns within the USN over the transfer of nuclear-propulsion technology and advanced underwater detection equipment even to a close ally. One view is that ultimately Canberra’s best option will be to buy or lease eight of the USN’s Virginia Class attack submarines built by General Dynamics Electric Boat Huntington Ingalls Industries and Newport News Shipbuilding.