Will AUKUS reduce China’s nuclear deterrent?

China believes that the US help Australia build nuclear submarines will increase the risk of a nuclear race in the Indo-Pacific. What do experts say?

Depends on many factors

The AUKUS Tripartite Agreement will allow Australia to build nuclear submarines based on technology transferred by the US. This is a scenario that China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “will damage peace and stability in the region, exacerbate the arms race, and affect efforts to fight back.” nuclear proliferation by the international community”.

However, whether AUKUS opens the “door” to nuclear weapons depends on how atomic technology is transferred from the US to Australia; Milton Leitenberg, the senior research fellow at the Center for Security and International Studies, University of Maryland, said.

The fuel used to power submarine reactors is also used to develop nuclear weapons – a loophole in international non-proliferation treaties that some nations have signed up for. have been suspected of taking advantage in the past – although Mr Leitenberg said he did not think the Australian government had similar intentions.

“Everything will depend on, whether there is a provision in the agreement that helps the US get back the reactor fuel after they have been used and no longer have the effect of powering the submarines,” Leitenberg said.

The fuel that will be used to power Australia’s nuclear submarine reactors will be highly enriched uranium (HEU). Uranium enriched to more than 20% is considered HEU, and US and UK submarine reactors use uranium enriched to 93-97% – which is above the 90% threshold that is believed to be ” weapon level” standard.

Special exemption for Australia

At a press conference held at the White House last week, US officials said that “a unique set of safety regulations” would help govern how HEUs are used by Australia.

As a member of the United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty, Australia is prohibited from producing or possessing nuclear weapons.

However, due to a loophole in Article III of the treaty, naval reactors are exempt from nuclear safety regulations. According to Leitenberg, this vulnerability was exploited by the far-right government in Brazil in the 1970s, when they used HEU to run naval nuclear reactors, and at the same time operate an additional weapons program. Nuclear.

“Everybody has their purpose,” Leitenberg said. “But there’s a good chance that the Australian government has no such intention.”

Returning HEU to the US after a nuclear submarine is decommissioned is also a way to ensure that Australia will not misuse the HEU it receives; according to Mr Leitenberg.

Zhao Tong, a research fellow with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that submarines powered by low-enriched uranium need to be refuelled multiple times, while submarines run on low-enriched uranium. Underground running on HEU is not needed.

Although this reduces the chances of converting nuclear materials, Mr Zhao said that AUKUS could provide an impetus to establish a mechanism to prevent countries from exploiting loopholes in the anti-proliferation treaty.

“The most important thing to look out for here is whether Canberra has partnered with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to design a set of safety rules that will reduce the risk of the transfer of atomic material. , and set a gold standard for other countries or not,” said Mr Zhao.

AUKUS will make Australia the only non-nuclear country to own HEU-powered submarines, an exemption that US administration officials say will not be granted to other US non-nuclear allies. including Korea.

Will China’s nuclear deterrence decrease?

Although the fact that a non-nuclear country such as Australia is allowed to transfer nuclear submarine technology provokes a strong reaction from China; But according to Sarwar Kashmeri, Professor of Political Science from Norwich University in Vermont, Australia’s nuclear submarines do not pose a significant threat to the stability of the Indo-Pacific region.

“The point is that nuclear technology for submarines is not something to be hidden, it is something beyond the US and UK. India built its first nuclear submarines a few months ago. The situation there is even more dangerous, because, unlike Australia, India is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty,” Kashmeri said.

According to Zhao Tong, some commentators in China have highlighted the danger that Australia’s HEU-powered submarines pose to China’s nuclear deterrent. However, he thinks this is just the worst-case scenario.

“In theory, Australia could use nuclear submarines to intercept Chinese nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines entering the Western Pacific. Access to that area is very important for China because from this area China can launch nuclear warheads to the US territory,” Zhao Tong said.

“However, in reality, Australia only wants to resist the strong actions of the Chinese military, and its nuclear submarines can be used to intercept Chinese ships approaching Australian waters. carry out reconnaissance and reconnaissance missions. I don’t think they are used to deter China’s nuclear deterrent,” Tong added.

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