Australia’s Aukus nuclear submarines could fuel regional arms race despite assurance


Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Conroy’s comment was not a surprise as countries including China and others in Asia-Pacific often couched their arms acquisitions in “defensive terms”.

Most countries would do so in the name of national security interests but it did not mean such actions ensured peace or safety, he said.

Even before Aukus was announced in 2021, China and other regional countries had already embarked on significant military build-up since the 1990s, Koh said.


Aukus will ‘get done’, Biden tells Australia’s Albanese during visit to Washington

Aukus will ‘get done’, Biden tells Australia’s Albanese during visit to Washington

“Conroy may not be necessarily wrong to say Aukus responds to this already ongoing condition, yet at the same time, it’s also not wrong to say that Aukus … may not only be used by Beijing to legitimise its naval build-up, it also could be exploited as a justification for other regional countries’ military build-up programmes,” Koh said.

Australia’s acquisition of the submarines might trigger new problems as other countries could argue that they should also acquire similar capabilities, said Maria Rost Rublee, a nuclear politics expert at Monash University.

These countries are not limited to “dangerous actors”, for instance, in South Korea where the majority of its people have expressed a desire for their country to own nuclear weapons, Rublee added.

“Just having this type of technology in the hands of a country where you have strong popular support for nuclear weapons could be an issue,” she said.

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In an analysis earlier this month, Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned the accumulation of weapons such as missiles could potentially lead to unintended attacks.

“The Indo-Pacific region has entered a new missile age … each nation individually seeking deterrence while as a whole steering the region into ever more dangerous waters,” he said. “A particular risk concerns the prospects of attacks on the nuclear forces of countries like North Korea and China, by US or allied forces in ways that may not be intended.”

By the 2030s, the Indo-Pacific region would be “full of thousands of new missiles that can be expected to be used widely in the context of a major regional war”, Panda said.

Responding to Conroy’s comments, the national convenor of Labor Against War in Australia, Marcus Strom, said: “If your answer to growing regional tension is to add offensive weaponry, you create a logic towards war.

A Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine of the type Australia plans to acquire from the early 2030s. Photo: US Navy

“Aukus is designed to shore up American power in East Asia, not de-escalate tensions,” he added.

While Conroy has given assurances about the safety of sealed nuclear reactors within the submarines, analysts argued that the lack of facilities in Australia for the eventual disposal of these reactors is worrying.

“The strength of this agreement is that the reactor module comes to us sealed. It comes sealed, designed to be never opened over the life of a submarine. You don’t have to refuel it, you don’t have to insert new fuel rods … [over] the life of the submarine,” Conroy said.

But nuclear waste expert Ian Lowe said in an analysis on The Conversation website earlier this year that Australia has failed for decades to find long-term storage solutions for small quantities of low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste.

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Even Australia’s allies and Aukus partners, the US and the UK, do not have long-term solutions for nuclear waste storage, according to Lowe.

“This should be concerning. To manage the waste from our proposed nuclear submarines properly, we’ll have to develop systems and sites which do not currently exist in Australia,” Lowe said.

Australian states such as Victoria, Queensland and South Australia have said they would not accept a nuclear waste facility within their borders.

While it will be another 30 years before Australia has to worry about dumping the submarine’s nuclear reactors, it is not a long time, Rublee said.

“If they take their nuclear stewardship obligations seriously, they must immediately begin working on the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste,” she added.


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