June 20, 2024

AUKUS: Assessing the State of the Security Pact

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By: Nabhjyot Arora, Research Analyst, GSDN

AUKUS: source Internet

The AUKUS accord signed in September 2021 created ripples in the Indo-Pacific, potentially enabling Canberra to acquire nuclear powered submarines by the 2030s. The tripartite pact signed by the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (USA) and Australia aim at containing the expansionist tendencies of Beijing, as stated by the US President Joe Biden regarding ‘investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances’.

Pillar I of the AUKUS Pact enables Canberra to acquire and develop nuclear submarine technology by the 2030s, which will be shared in the core group inclusive of the UK, the US, and Australia. The US will sell three second hand submarines to Canberra, before any new vessels could be commissioned.

Pillar II of the pact include Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and South Korea as potential members enabling cooperation in the development of military technologies such as quantum technology, artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, undersea capabilities, electronic warfare systems, and advanced cybersecurity.

The expansion of the pact has been, however, criticised by the Foreign Minister of China, stating that the alliance could destabilize the region due to potential nuclear proliferation in the South-Pacific. The US Department of State, on the other hand, has reduced export restrictions enabling military and technology transfer to Britain and Canberra under the AUKUS Pact.

Nuclear Proliferation and International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR)

The US International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restricts transfer of technology critical to the national security, military and intelligence; however, the US State Department’s Directorate of Défense Trade Controls (DDTC) is no longer required to license or approve defense articles, enabling the industries to operate in licence-free environment. Australia, UK, and Canada are the countries exempted from the ITAR, which prevents the US defense technology from illegal usage and obliges corporates to access the US military technology after qualifying the licensing requirements. Approvals would still be required for items included in the ‘excluded list’ governed by an international arms control agreement called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

The alliance can operate in sync with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Five Eyes Intelligence, with Australia, UK, Canada, and New Zealand already a part of the alliance, where changes to the ITAR would enable private companies to safeguard the technology. It has been reported that the defense companies will no longer be required to seek approval from the State Department prior to any export, re-export, re-transfer, or temporary import of defense articles from the US, thereby only a secret level clearance would be required to mitigate the risks involved.

US lawmakers remain sceptical of the exemptions introduced, due to an increase in espionage activity affecting Australian defense industry. Challenges remain due to workforce protests and delays in establishing maintenance facilities in Western Australia. New Zealand, meanwhile seeks to revoke the anti-nuclear stand, to join the Pillar II of the AUKUS Pact; it has been engaged in displaying solidarity for freedom of navigation and shipping in the Red Sea Region, amidst the ongoing Israel-Palestinian War.

New Zealand and UK remain affected by cyberattacks sponsored by Beijing, though the latter maintains diplomatic relations with Beijing. UK undertook arms exports to Israel, however, an escalation in offensive to Rafah, would result in a ban on British arms exports by the US, underscoring the alliance.

Canada aims to boost defense spending and seek procurement of equipment as the purchase of nuclear-powered submarines remains crucial for protecting the sovereignty of Canada in the Arctic; while the Pillar II can augment information security against cyberattacks in the Arctic.

Nuclear Proliferation in the Indo-Pacific

Nuclear proliferation in the Indo-Pacific, on the other hand, is regulated by the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty which bans the manufacture, possession, stationing, and testing of nuclear explosive devices in the territories of signatories to the treaty. The treaty also bans dumping of radioactive waste at sea, an issue highlighted by the Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles that the government will not accept nuclear waste from partner countries under the AUKUS Legislation – which includes ‘managing, storing, and, disposing of radioactive waste from an AUKUS submarine’, where AUKUS submarine stands for an Australian or a UK/US owned submarine. Canberra will accept low-level of nuclear waste from the UK and the US as a part of the deal, however, concerns have been raised against the disposal, wherein, the Defense Minister would be allowed to designate any area as a nuclear waste facility, however, there could be protests from local communities against the threat of emissions.

The SPNFZ Treaty also bans the use of nuclear explosive device against parties to the treaties or protocol parties’ territories and the testing of nuclear explosive device within the zone. There have been apprehensions regarding the operational control of Canberra over the submarines, after the architect of AUKUS and the Deputy US Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell issued a statement that the submarines would be an extension of US naval capabilities, deployed by a close allied force.

The statement thereby, seems to pose a threat to sovereignty of Canberra, due to dependence on the US for the development of nuclear propulsion technology. Further, a wide discrepancy in funding could lead the latter to exert military and strategic dominance, though the pact seeks to maintain balance of power, with the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reiterating that the deployment of military assets in the event of conflict will be made as a sovereign nation. Australian defense companies have also expressed concern over Canberra’s efforts to replicate a U.S.-style export control regime, worrying that it could inhibit their ability to do business with non-AUKUS countries.

Manufacturing backlogs and supply chain disruptions in the submarine industry could hamper timely delivery of submarines; meanwhile, investment made by Canberra has been backing up production at the shipyards, which could be aided by the potential development of submarines designed by the UK. Canberra backing up funding to augment production capacity in the UK and the US, however, has drawn criticism back in the country. Easing of licensing requirements by the US Department of Commerce could enable exports within the AUKUS member countries.

AUKUS Pact could turn out crucial for the infrastructure development in South Australia and Western Australia, in addition to generating employment, with civilian and military personnel deployed to cooperate with manufacturing companies and navies in the US and the UK; in addition to delivering skill and training-based courses relevant to the nuclear-powered submarine plan in Adelaide, which would enable employment generation in Australia.

Multilateral Alliances and Arms Race – AUKUS Pillar II

Nuclear propulsion technology could enable Canberra to develop its own nuclear-powered submarines to be delivered by the early 2040s. The development remains crucial, with reports of an attack by a Chinese fighter jet, which eventually hit an Australian helicopter in the Yellow Sea, near western coast of South Korea.

Seoul and Tokyo proposed to join the alliance, where the technological capabilities could augment regional security. However, there have been apprehensions raised regarding the protection of sensitive information, as accusations regarding the stealing of military secrets could potentially disrupt participation in Pillar II. The political instability in addition to economic influence from Beijing, could in turn result in imposition of economic sanctions and boycott.

Tokyo diversifying the supply chains away from Beijing, could emerge as key defense partner, however, the security architecture remains vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The security clearance bill, thereby, remains critical to prevent any potential information leaks. Tokyo has been engaged in a territorial dispute with Beijing, over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; which led Washington and Tokyo to upgrade defense industrial cooperation on advanced technology under the Pillar 2 of AUKUS.

The Prime Minister of Japan – Fumio Kishida, with reference to the geopolitical situation in Ukraine, stated that – ‘Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,’ calling for Beijing to peruse peaceful resolution with Taiwan. The US, meanwhile authorized a military aid package worth USD 12.5 billion for the submarine funding dedicated to the Indo-Pacific region, with Australia contributing USD 4.6 billion funding commitment to the submarine capability.

Strategic Deterrence – Asian NATO

The funding is open to the Indo-Pacific region and non-NATO allies, as Washington aims to move to the model of ‘lattice fence’ of multilateral alliances, against the ‘hub and spokes’ system of bilateral alliances, acting as strategic deterrence in the region. The US remains a non-signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), though, maintaining a collective international rule-based order might provide a strategic upper hand to the AUKUS alliance with the nuclear proliferation acting as a deterrent against the military expansion by China.

Beijing, meanwhile claims expansion of AUKUS to potentially spark a regional arms race in the region, however, the recent incidents of coercion and blocking the Coast Guard Vessels from delivering supplies to military outpost in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) led countries in the Indo-Pacific including Japan, the US, and Philippines cooperate to secure the principle of freedom of navigation and uphold the UNCLOS.

Ayungin Shoal is a low tide elevation within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, claimed by Beijing. The blockade preventing delivery of supplies to military outpost in the South China Sea invokes the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges the US to protect Manila in case of an attack by a foreign agent. Maritime tensions between Beijing and Manilla make the deployment of submarines in the Asia-Pacific critical for the protection of Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs), with territorial disputes raised by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan in the South China Sea. Beijing, however, raised apprehensions that, arming the countries with nuclear weapons could turn the alliance into ‘Asian NATO’.

The United States Presidential Elections in November 2024 could as well affect the expansion of the AUKUS Pact, as the country could divert funds to meet domestic manufacturing targets, transfer of military aid amidst ongoing Ukraine War and Israel-Palestinian Crisis. Elections in the UK and Australia by May 2025, with potential territorial claims by Beijing, amidst ongoing recessionary crisis would potentially decide the way for AUKUS to secure the maritime order.

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