Why didn’t we check in with our Pacific neighbours about AUKUS?

Oct 25, 2021
scott morrison
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

 Pacific nations haves a long-standing reason to be wary of all things nuclear. Yet here is our government high-handedly joining a deal to send nuclear-powered submarines patrolling the region.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison failed to consult Pacific nations about the plans to form AUKUS, the tripartite defence deal that will produce a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy.

Those nations most closely tied to the US network of military bases, particularly Japan and the Philippines, have welcomed the deal. Pacific nations which prefer to be friends with all and enemies of none have expressed reservations. Morrison talks of the Pacific family, yet his commitment to the relationship appears to be less than wholehearted, and key concerns of Pacific nations do not appear to be high Australian priorities.

Kiribati president Taneti Maamau commented that “with anything to do with nuclear we thought it would be a courtesy to raise it, to discuss it with your neighbours.”

Pacific leaders who express concern about the nuclearisation of the region speak from a history of close encounters with the most hazardous of military hardware. The Pacific has been a testing ground and nuclear waste dump since the dawn of the nuclear era. Indeed, the region saw the world’s only military use of nuclear weapons when the US bombed two cities in Japan.

Since then, there have been more than 300 nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific.

In 1946, the residents of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands were forcibly relocated so the United States could conduct 23 nuclear bomb tests on the islands and lagoon, continuing until 1958.

France tested bombs in French Polynesia. Fangataufa in the Tuamotu Archipelago and its neighbouring atoll, Moruroa, were the sites of about 200 nuclear bomb tests set off underground and in the air over 30 years to January 1996.

This is one reason why Pacific nations dislike nuclear ships, nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and nuclear bombs. In failing to consult them, the signatories to the AUKUS agreement showed disdain and disrespect for their Pacific neighbours. In addition, construction of a fleet of nuclear-powered Dreadnaughts fails to address the critical needs of the Pacific.

More than one Pacific leader said the money spent on nuclear-powered submarines would be better spent on addressing rising sea levels and other global warming issues.

It is 25 years since the last nuclear bomb test in the Pacific but the environmental and health impacts persist. They colour current policies of Pacific governments.

The father of Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was a sailor who was part of the support contingent for Britain’s H-bomb tests on Malden Island, Kiribati. After the announcement of the AUKUS agreement Bainimarama said that “To honour the sacrifice of all those who have suffered due to these weapons Fiji will never stop working towards a global nuclear ban.”

The AUKUS submarines are to be nuclear powered not nuclear armed. Morrison has said “Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability.” However there is no guarantee that if tensions in the region increase, and as large US military bases are developed and possibly become nuclear targets on the Australian mainland, circumstances could change without notice or public announcement.

It is almost certain that the US will design the submarines to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

The other AUKUS partners, the UK and US, are both upgrading their nuclear arsenals. The UK is increasing the size of its stockpile and expanding the circumstances under which nuclear weapons could be used.

To many Pacific leaders, no form of nuclear power is acceptable. The Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare spoke for many when he said at the UN General Assembly his government “would like to keep our region nuclear-free and put the region’s nuclear legacy behind us.”

He said “we do not support any form of militarisation in our region that could threaten regional and international peace and stability.”

New Zealand was careful not to question its commitment to ANZUS and the Five Eyes agreement, yet made it clear there is no change to the ban on nuclear armed or powered vessels in New Zealand waters.

New Zealand has joined nine Forum Island countries to sign and ratify the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty has not been signed by Australia, the UK nor the US.

Pacific island nations are not alone in their concerns. Malaysia and Indonesia have said they share strong reservations over Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, even though nuclear weapons are not a declared part of the plan. At a joint news conference with his counterpart, the Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said the two South-East Asian nations were “worried and concerned.”

Reuters reported that Malaysia has warned the AUKUS deal could spark a renewed arms race in the region and might heighten military tensions in Asia.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi has raised issues that will concern countries not just in the Pacific. He also warned that the pact could trigger an arms race by tempting other countries to build nuclear powered submarines.

Grossi said the IAEA was setting up a taskforce to look into the AUKUS pact, which will be the first time a non-nuclear armed country acquires nuclear submarines. This has implications for the processes, procedures and protocols for the handling of the nuclear material used to power the vessels.

The IAEA’s response underlines the hazards connected with introduction of nuclear submarines into the Australian arsenal. As ships of war, consideration should also be given to how the nuclear material will be cleaned up should robot sub hunters blow up the submarines and send them to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

While Australia has clearly chosen sides between China and the US, the majority of nations of the Pacific including New Zealand are pursuing a more nuanced and possibly more commendable approach, balancing issues around Taiwan, trade and climate change with the need for a peaceful, secure and clean Pacific.

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