Is the future of the European security architecture changing?

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“As long as one state has nuclear weapons, there will be others, state or sub-state actors, who will seek to acquire them.” — Final Report of the Canberra Commission, August 1996, p. 58.

The advent of nuclear weapons in 1945 considerably changed the landscape of international relations. The development of the atomic bomb is considered a revolutionary event. Currently, there are nine nuclear states. All of these states are in many ways considered powerful. States with these weapons enjoy advantages in international politics. They are beneficial for political purposes. However, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows that weapons of mass destruction have massively endangered the security of the world.

History of non-proliferation

Many non-nuclear states have attempted to acquire these weapons over the past seven decades. Nuclear terrorism soon after the disintegration of the USSR was also introduced. Work on non-proliferation began in the early 1950s under US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Shortly after this International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog was formed. In 1968, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into being to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Currently, 191 countries have pledged to join. The unique nature of the agreement makes it meaningful.

Five decades of history does not present a perfect record as many countries have cheated and waived the provisions. They secretly pursued their nuclear ambitions. When caught, some weak states have paid a heavy price for the biased nature of international politics. Some were let go and allowed – the strongest – Israel just in case. The decision-makers of the world order have used this treaty to legitimize the measurement of the nonproliferation criteria and the actions aimed at applying it in accordance with their standards.

AUKUS

AUKUS, a trilateral strategic partnership poses a threat to the NPT. The agreement unveiled by the Biden administration on September 15, 2021 is a security alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It will supply Australia with conventional nuclear-powered submarines. The pact also includes joint work in the Indo-Pacific region to contain the rise of China, the approach of the United States and the United Kingdom shows that it wants to expand its security presence in Asia. It will allow countries to share advanced defense technologies and information in various fields such as cybernetic, quantum, naval and artificial intelligence.[1].

Meaning of AUKUS

The deal is critically important for many reasons, but at the heart of it are nuclear-powered submarines. Australia, a non-nuclear state (ENDAN) will receive at least 8 nuclear-powered submarines which will be operated using highly enriched uranium (HEU).

The Indo-Pacific version of NATO emphasizes Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Strategically, the geopolitical shift from the North Atlantic to the Pacific shows the strong commitment of the United States and the United Kingdom to having free and inclusive access to the Indian Ocean.

Nuclear submarines have enormous “deterrent capabilities” and therefore ramifications in the region.[2] There are only six countries in the world with nuclear powered submarines which are USA, UK, China, Russia, India and France. Many countries in the past tried to build their nuclear propulsion technology but failed.

It is also the first time the United States has shared nuclear technology with another foreign country since the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement with Britain and since the NPT came into effect in 1970.

Advantages of nuclear submarines

Nuclear submarines are the most dangerous and revolutionary underwater weapons that offer a range of operational advantages. They are absolute assets for a country. The greatest advantage of nuclear-powered submarines is their endurance to remain submerged underwater for indefinite periods of time. Their fuel can last for several months with resurfacing just for food or crew needs. The nuclear reactor allows them to move by generating a large amount of energy which propels them to a faster speed with relatively little noise. This provides a major advantage in stealth attack and detection. They have a cruising speed of 38 to 47 km/h. On the other hand, submarines with diesel electric motors must regularly resurface to recharge their batteries and take in oxygen, which makes them easier to spot. Diesel-electric submarines which are smaller in size have a cruising speed of 10-27 km/h and are cheaper to operate and maintain.[3]

The characteristics of nuclear submarines are very attractive, but such technology is complex to develop. They are very expensive and require more specialized labor for the whole construction procedure. High energy yield is needed in a limited area in harsh circumstances at sea. Thus, countries with nuclear-powered technology use weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to provide sufficient energy.

Challenges

The US and UK use 93-97% HEU in their naval reactors. Using more than 90 percent[4] of it, falls under the category of “quality weapons” which is potentially dangerous. Nuclear energy is not synonymous with nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, the sensitivity of the technology cannot be ignored as it has the potential to fall into the wrong hands with the use of a high percentage of enriched uranium in its reactors. They are referred to by many as “floating Chernobyls”.[5].” Naval propeller reactors have been criticized as a loophole in the NPT and the IAEA. Indeed, their materials could be exploited by the wrong people. The components could be used by non-nuclear states for their weapons production. The military deal could also trigger a regional nuclear naval propulsion arms race. The NNWS could make Australia’s deal a precedent to reap its own strategic interests.

Implications for Australia

Much better performance with more stealth, speed and range is not overstated, but lethal weapons pose a threat to Australia’s nuclear policy and its nuclear “big market” is also in question.

Australia’s history of influence within the nuclear regime is rich and not new. It is the largest exporter of uranium in the world and owns a third of the earth’s uranium. Australia became a member of the IAEA in 1974 and in the 1970s, under the leadership of Prime Minister Malcom Fraser, the “big market” was also established. This has enabled the highly uranium-enriched country to fulfill its obligations, under the NPT as an ENDAN, by limiting nuclear proliferation and exporting only uranium to IAEA safeguards to ensure economic benefits and strategic.

Interests

The agreement shows Australia’s closer alliance and more cooperative military integration with the United States and the United Kingdom and its increased role in Asian security in relation to the Sino-American Cold War. As for the United States, it is a victory, it allows a greater American presence in the Indio-Pacific region. The pact symbolizes a change in the world order. For its protection, conventional submarines would also do the country good. America’s foreign stature has been to maintain a rules-based order and AUKUS seeks it. For the United Kingdom, this agreement shifts the post-Brexit universal ambitions of “global Britain” to the Indo-Pacific region which is renewing its attention there.

Reaction

The pact will have a big impact on China-Australia relations which have been business partners. Political relations recently took a hit when Australia backed a global investigation into the origin and sources of the coronavirus and the island nation’s drive to ban Huawei overseas operations from 5G contracts. China also recently imposed sanctions on Australian products. The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines changes the energy balance in the South China Sea. China has always denounced such alliances as anti-China cliques and a “Cold War mentality”.

Another cry of disdain came from France. The trilateral partnership has created fissures within the Western bloc. Canberra had a $66 billion deal[6] with Paris for conventional submarines, but withdrew from the agreement. The agreement was an important factor for increased influence and involvement in the Indo-Pacific region. The European country called it a stab in the back and expressed its rage as it called its ambassadors from Australia and America home for “consultations”. The reaction of the European Union mirrors that of France. A rift between Europe and America is more likely to deepen.

Conclusion

Compliance with non-proliferation has always been a delicate task for its safeguards and guardians. Moreover, the prejudicial behavior of the decision makers of the international system has made its achievement more complicated. Naval nuclear propulsion technology has been seen as an escape from the IAEA and the NPT. Nuclear-powered submarines have only been acquired by nuclear states and AUKUS has challenged this with Australia, a non-nuclear state set to become the seventh country to possess these deadly weapons. The signatories of the agreement have their own interests. Naval reactors, although extremely advantageous, present many dangers.

All of this illustrates the bruised nature of the proliferation regime and poses a threat to long-term world peace.


[1] Karbassi, Shayan. “AUKUS Legal Mechanisms Explained.” LawSep 24, 2021,

[2] Tewari, Suranjana. “Aukus: UK-US-Australia Pact Signals Power Shift in Asia-Pacific.”

[3] Mitchell, AJ “How Nuclear-Powered Submarines Really Work.” Business Intern22.

[4] Zhu, Melissa. “What is the Aukus Alliance and what does it have to do with China?” Oct. 10, 2021.

[5] “AUKUS and Australia’s Nuclear Submarines.” www.lowyinstitute.org

[6] Karbassi, Shayan. “AUKUS Legal Mechanisms Explained.” LawSep 24, 2021,

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