Ever since AUKUS (Australia – UK – US trilateral security partnership) was announced, reams have already been written on it. Nations of Europe, and the Asia-Pacific have proffered their interpretation of this tripartite strategic pact whose centrepiece constitutes the eight nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) that will become available to Australia. The pact also envisages sharing of information and know-how in technologies like artificial intelligence, long-range strike capabilities, etc. Evidently, AUKUS illustrates American willingness to share its advanced technologies with allies as a way to buttress its own security against a common threat perception.
Unlike the Russian lease of an SSN to India from 1988 to 1991 and then from 2011 to 2021, AUKUS envisages transfer of technology to Australia to build, operate and eventually decommission the platforms. The technical dimensions of the agreement are not yet clear. These are likely to be ironed out over the next year and a half by a special working group. Nevertheless, the Australian Prime Minister has clarified that his country has no desire for nuclear weapons and would not be building any fuel enrichment capabilities for the naval nuclear reactors. Highly enriched uranium, which is likely to fuel the reactors, would be made available by the US and UK. The three countries have also approached the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to work out a safeguards agreement for this nuclear material. The Agency, though, has no ready template to offer on this. Interestingly also, Australia has no experience of operating nuclear power plants, though it is the third largest producer of uranium, and has operated a research reactor for production of medical isotopes since 1958.
Implications for India
There are two prisms through which India can perceive this deal – first, from that of its national security with particular concern about China; and second, from that of the precedent it sets with regional and global security implications.
Seen from the lens of national security, an AUKUS arrangement that seeks to deter China, a country that has displayed expansionist tendencies and aggressive positions against India over the last few years, is a welcome move. It will likely distract China and complicate its security, thereby easing the pressure on India.
Also, the availability of SSNs, with their advantages of greater stealth, endurance, and carrying capacity, with a partner of India in the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad) will strengthen the overall military power projection in the Indo-Pacific. From India’s perspective, AUKUS would not diminish the role of Quad; rather, it would add military teeth to the grouping, and thus enhance deterrence. In any case, many bi/tri-lateral groupings are already dotting the Indo-Pacific landscape and India has no reason to be concerned about them.
However, what could turn out to be problematic for India is the precedent that AUKUS sets in the US providing technology and material for nuclear powered submarines to another. Given the potential proliferation risks involved in such transfers, an activity of this kind has been avoided across the world. As stated earlier, even Russia had only leased a nuclear powered submarine to India, without any transfer of technology.
AUKUS could open the doors for other nuclear armed countries to make similar offers. The China-Pakistan nuclear collaboration could take such a turn. China, which has, expectedly, expressed strong criticism of the tripartite agreement, may attempt to get back by making a similar offer to its iron brother, Pakistan. It is well known that Pakistan has been keen to equip its naval Strategic Forces Command with credible platforms. Availability of SSNs would help learn the nuances of naval propulsion, besides training for operations on such platforms. Meanwhile, for China that is openly seeking parity with the US in being a global rule-maker, this would be an opportunity to establish its own credentials. North Korea and Iran could also be potential Chinese customers.
The US has described this as a “one-off special arrangement”, an exception made for an ally that can play a part in the efforts to deter a common adversary. But the problem with this logic is that the adversary may also want to make a similar exception for its own allies. While the US has offered this technology to a country that is a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) under the NPT and holds a good compliance record, China, may offer it to non-NPT, nuclear armed states that do not have full-scope safeguards arrangements with the IAEA. Or perhaps to an NPT member with a less than satisfactory compliance history. Given that all such nations also have their nuclear expertise and existing enrichment/reprocessing infrastructure, they could also be more adept at proliferation.
Global and Regional Implications
The precedent, therefore, of the AUKUS agreement could have global implications. In this case, there is no reason to disbelieve Australia – the beneficiary country’s assurance that it would follow strict safeguards discipline. But, would it be the same for future recipients of such technologies? Brazil and South Korea are already expressed interest in SSNs. In fact, France has been involved with the non-nuclear part of Brazil’s SSN construction. Much miffed by AUKUS, France may now want to explore the possibility of stepping into the nuclear dimension of Brazil’s submarine as well. AUKUS may open the race for transfer/acquisition of such capabilities between interested collaborators. The ‘one-off’ reasoning could, then, become redundant.
The issue is likely to reverberate at the NPT RevCon rescheduled for January 2022. It may create ripples within the five NWS, but also between the NWS and NNWS. In order to mitigate disturbing consequences, it might be a good idea for Washington DC and London to think through options that they can offer for larger applicability, in case SSN proliferation becomes a reality. The discussions on clear pathways for ensuring a responsible and reliable stewardship of this sensitive technology will have to be broad-based than earlier envisaged by AUKUS.
While the NPT does not prohibit NNWS from building or operating nuclear-powered ships, the NNWS is required to place all their nuclear material and facilities under IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA). Even then it might be a challenge for the Agency to safeguard submarine naval reactors owing to the secrecy around their basing. To get around this problem, the CSA exempts safeguards on nuclear material used in a “non-proscribed military activity,” such as naval reactors. However, since only six countries, all with nuclear weapons, have currently been operating SSNs, practical issues around such exemptions and safeguards had never presented themselves. These will now need to be addressed with adequate thought and consideration.
AUKUS has been crafted to address the looming security concern being posed by China in the Indo-Pacific. It plans to do so by strengthening the deterrent capability of a prominent US regional ally within a short to medium time frame. At the same time, it also ends up opening the possibility of new security dilemmas in the long term.
About the Author
Manpreet Sethi is a Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi and recipient of the 2014 K Subrahmanyam award.
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