The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia inked a so-called trilateral partnership (AUKUS) in September 2021, according to which the US and the UK will help Australia develop and deploy at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, adding to the Western military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
But since nuclear submarines take a long time to build, Australia will not have its own nuclear submarines until after 2040. It could "rent" one from the UK or the US for a short term, though.
AUKUS has caused serious political damage to France, forcing it to take some emergency measures to prevent being marginalized in the region
Surprisingly, the idea of jointly building nuclear submarines was first proposed by Australia, obviously keeping China in mind. But before that, in 2016, Australia and France brokered a deal worth tens of billions of dollars, under which France was to deliver conventional diesel-powered submarines to Australia. The French leadership had then hailed the deal as 50 years of friendship.
However, Australia had another option at the time, that is, to buy conventional submarines from Japan which would have been more cost-effective. But it chose not to do so, because China would have vehemently opposed such a deal.
Despite that, the already tense Sino-Australian relations have deteriorated further due to AUKUS. And the issue is likely to be discussed at the Shangri-La Dialogue to be held in Singapore from Friday to Sunday, because it is a "track one" intergovernmental forum, held every year and attended by the defense ministers, permanent heads of militaries and military chiefs of Asia-Pacific states.
Similarly, the inking of the AUKUS deal also means strained Sino-British relations in the short term. The UK was already a member of the "Five Power Defence Arrangements" which also includes Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, and a member of the Five Eyes (along with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). But while these mechanisms are not directly targeted at China, AUKUS and the nuclear submarine agreement clearly are.
Unfortunately, France became a victim of the AUKUS deal, with the US, the UK and Australia robbing it of the submarine order.
Amid all this, the US has continued to push for military cooperation among France, India and Australia as a trilateral mechanism of its Indo-Pacific alliance system. In fact, France also considers itself an Indo-Pacific player as it has dominions and exclusive economic zones in the South Pacific.
AUKUS has caused serious political damage to France, forcing it to take some emergency measures to prevent being marginalized in the region. For example, last month, France, together with the US, Japan and Australia, held joint military exercises to ensure it continues to play a role in regional security cooperation. But that has made the security situation in the Asia-Pacific even more complex and confrontational.
Also, AUKUS has increased international security tensions. Australia is a member of the Treaty of Rarotonga, and the acquisition of nuclear submarines, which poses a major threat to peace and security in the South Pacific, violates that treaty.
Although AUKUS claims the submarines to be co-developed will not carry any nuclear weapons, the nuclear-powered vessels will have a major impact on the regional naval power landscape, and could trigger a new round of arms race in the Asia-Pacific. And given the fact that the nuclear-powered submarines are likely to be deployed in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, even the East China Sea, they will greatly expand the cruising area of the Australian Navy, aggravating tensions.
Besides, despite AUKUS claiming the nuclear-powered submarines will only carry conventional weapons and thus won't violate the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the practice of taking advantage of the treaty's gray areas will affect global nuclear non-proliferation and the nuclear disarmament process.
Nuclear-powered submarines use highly enriched uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. What makes matters worse is that the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot conduct timely and effective supervision of nuclear submarines. As a party to the nonproliferation treaty, Australia has adhered to the principle of denuclearization. But by breaking the agreement with France in order to co-develop nuclear-powered submarines with the US and the UK, it might have prompted other countries that have long wanted to develop nuclear-powered submarine, to follow suit.
Therefore, AUKUS has added to the challenges facing the nuclear nonproliferation mechanism and its damaging effects should be discussed at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The author is a researcher at the National Academy of Development and Strategy and a professor at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China.
The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS