By Shravan Krishnan Sharma
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT for short, is a landmark international treaty signed in 1968 that forms the basis of a global arms control regime on nuclear weapons.
Most states in the world are party to the treaty (including the United States) and have ratified it in an effort to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons. Articles I, II and III of the treaty specifically ban the transfer of nuclear technologies from states with nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states.
In September 2021, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom signed a treaty establishing a new alliance known as AUKUS. The terms of this agreement, which essentially laid out a merger of the Anglo-American, Anglo-Australian, and Australian-American alliances into a consolidated pact, also included a clause that authorized the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
This in turn forced the Australian government to cancel (hours before the signing of the AUKUS pact) a previously held contract with the French government for the purchase of 12 Barracuda-class diesel-electric attack submarines.
Needless to say, the French government was not happy. Within a week of the deal being signed, Paris recalled its ambassador to Washington for the first time in 250 years to express displeasure with what France viewed as American strong arming of Australia.
However, the deal has been welcomed by many in Southeast Asia. The potential increased presence of the American and Royal navies is seen as ensuring greater freedom of navigation in the waters of the South China Sea.
While there is little doubt that AUKUS represents a renewed commitment by the U.S. and the U.K. towards the Asia-Pacific, specifically with respect to countering Chinese influence in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia, one cannot help but wonder if this represents a reduction in Australian strategic autonomy.
Granted, Australia is one of America’s staunchest allies and generally tends to follow American leadership on international issues, but the US has the luxury of physical distance from Asia and any potential issues that might arise there that Australia simply does not have.
If push comes to shove and war does break out, Australia will be threatened by hostile forces as it has been before. If Australia should be cut off from British and American support in the case of war, would it be able to field sufficient expertise within the ranks of the Australian Defence Force to operate these new machines? Or would they be confined to port like the ill-fated Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov?
Operational quandaries aside, the primary issue at hand is whether AUKUS is legal per the NPT. Though per the word of the NPT, AUKUS is perfectly legal, there is an argument to be made that the transfer of technology from the U.S. and U.K. to Australia violates the spirit of the treaty.
Observers so far have correctly noted that the treaty only explicitly prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons technology, and not the transfer of nuclear power technology. NPT signatories have leaned on this distinction before to transfer nuclear power technologies, such as the French sale of the Osirak reactor to Iraq or the Canadian sales of reactor technologies to India.
The differentiating factor, however, is that those sales represented (on paper) the sale of reactor technology for civilian research and energy production purposes. AUKUS represents the first time the wording of the NPT treaty has been interpreted in such a way to allow for the transfer of military-grade technologies from nuclear armed states to non-nuclear states.
It is still unclear as to what type the submarines will be, as they could be American Virginia-class designs with British power plants or British Vanguard-class designs with American power plants.
Australia has made clear that these submarines will under no circumstances be nuclear armed and will only ever carry conventional weapons. As part of the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone formed following extensive British testing in the 1960s, Australia would be unable to own any submarines bearing nuclear weapons.
Even the presence of nuclear-powered submarines presents a variety of challenges for Australia. Would these submarines be permitted to dock in New Zealand, a sworn opponent of nuclear proliferation with whom Australia maintains significant interoperability and operational overlap? Would these submarines be more obvious to Chinese passive sonar in the South China Sea than their diesel power counterparts?
On an even more pressing note, would they be crewed by Australian sailors, or would British and American submariners have to embed in crews to ensure operability of critical systems?
This is a key question, given that there is little to no indigenous expertise around nuclear power plants in Australia (and that to train a combat capable nuclear engineer cadre would represent millions of dollars plus years of training for sufficient indigenous capabilities).
The NPT exists for the sole purpose of limiting the use of nuclear technologies to peaceful activities only. Granted, the transfer of a reactor is not the same as the transfer of weapons technology, but any high school student with access to a modem and a laptop can draw a logical line of inference from possession of reactor technology and fissionable material to the development of nuclear weapons.
While to the untrained eye this is a straightforward process of refinement, the critical difference lies in the type of reactor and its byproducts. A reactor designed for the specific purpose of energy generation does not produce material that would be suitable for weapons. Does this to imply that this technology cannot be reverse-engineered and modified to produce weapons-grade fissionable material?
No, that outcome remains entirely probable, and therein lies the concern. The very fact that the possibility exists is the problem.
The question now is whether Australia will remain a signatory of the NPT and abide by its current obligations in good faith to not undertake research into the development of a nuclear weapons arsenal.
If Australia reneging on its deal with France is any indication of an emerging pattern regarding nuclear norms, the world should be concerned that this AUKUS treaty is indeed in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and dangerous for global security.
Shravan Krishnan Sharma is a graduate student at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs, pursuing a Master in International Security with concentrations in Intelligence and Asian Studies.