The AUKUS announcement in San Diego in March resulted in wide ranging commentary about how Australia would maintain relationships with many of its neighbors, some of whom vehemently disagreed with the original signing of the deal in 2021.
The AUKUS deal will see Australia purchase at least three Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and later develop and build, in conjunction with the United Kingdom, a new class of nuclear submarines. There are also related discussions around the U.S. hosting nuclear-capable bombers in Australia.
The Pacific region, currently the epicenter of a tug-of-war between China and the United States and its Western allies for hegemonic influence, has now been presented with a new challenge in one of the most openly anti-nuclear zones on the globe.
There has been little effort on the part of the AUKUS powers to disguise the fact that this deal is designed to counter the Chinese threat in the Pacific. Beijing has ostensibly begun to erode at the United States’ sphere of influence in the region, a state of affairs which has been almost universal since the end of the Second World War. Australia’s largest trading partner has made moves to end U.S. hegemony in the region by enacting security deals with several Pacific Islands and pushing nations to end formal relations with Taiwan.
The Chinese response to the AUKUS deal has been predictably forthright, with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying China had “made clear its severe concern and firm opposition.”
He described AUKUS as reflecting a “Cold War mentality which will only motivate an arms race, damage the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and harm regional stability and peace.”
Nonetheless, Wang highlighted the concern of some Western aligned states in the Pacific when he derided a deal that “seriously undermines the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.”
The Pacific’s Response
There was consternation among some of the Australia’s Pacific neighbors when then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison first announced the AUKUS deal in 2021. When Australia criticized Solomon Islands’ security deal with China the following year, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare lambasted the Australian government’s lack of consultation on the AUKUS deal, saying that the Pacific states should have been “consulted.”
“The AUKUS Treaty will see nuclear submarines in Pacific waters…I learnt of the AUKUS treaty in the media,” Sogavare said at the time.
The election of the Labor party in Australia has seen a recalibration of Australia’s international diplomacy, with a reaffirming of bilateral communication being at the forefront. Much of this has been focused on Solomon Islands; Australia has expressed concern at Solomon Islands’ burgeoning security and military relationship with China. As such, Sogavare was paid a courtesy visit by Australia’s High Commissioner on March 17 to brief the Solomon Island government on the AUKUS security arrangement, especially the movement toward Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. A statement from Sogavare’s office thanked Australia for the briefing while reemphasizing the importance of “transparency, openness, mutual respect and continuous dialogue on AUKUS arrangement, especially when both countries are parties to the Treaty of Rarotonga and other international treaties on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
Sogavare also reminded Australia that the Pacific region is a nuclear weapons free zone, to which Australia consistently has replied that the submarines to be acquired under the deal would be nuclear-powered and would not carry nuclear weapons, in line with Australia’s treaty obligations.
The Australia-Solomon Islands relationship at this juncture is a far cry from the relationship under Morrison. Australia views direct and open engagement with the Pacific as an important step in its attempt to ward off Chinese diplomatic advancements in the region.
Pacific Island neighbor Fiji has also recently been receptive to the AUKUS deal, at least on the surface. Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who sees himself a leader in the Pacific region, has started to move further away from China since taking power at the end of 2022, citing differences in the two nations’ legal systems as a reason for canceling a bilateral police agreement. Conversely, on the AUKUS deal, he reiterated to ABC television that he supported Australia’s sovereignty.
“For us to have a strong friend is not a bad thing,” he said. “Australia is developing its own capabilities. In our case, if my friend develops their own capability, why should I be worried about what they may do about it unless we’re worried about aggressive or some invasive activities they might be looking at in the future?”
Rabuka went on to state that the AUKUS agreement deals with nuclear-powered submarines, not nuclear-armed submarines, a talking point that Canberra, London, and Washington repeat often.
In the interview, Rabuka continued, “everybody has agreed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Rarotonga Treaty. And I believe, and I am sure, and what I have read about the Non-Proliferation treaties, and the Rarotonga agreement, is that the building of the submarine does not break any of the agreements.”
There is still some pushback against the AUKUS deal, however, much of it coming from the overarching sticking point in relations between Australia them Pacific islands: climate change and the environment.
A communique issued by four former Pacific Island prime ministers – Marshall Islands’ Hilda Heine, Palau’s Tommy Remengesau, Tuvalu’s Enele Sopoga, and Kiribati’s Anote Tong – said the “staggering $368 billion” put aside for the AUKUS deal by Australia was an affront to the region and called on nations to do more to combat climate change first and foremost.
“The greatest security threat [for the Pacific islands] has always been climate change,” Tong told the ABC. “To go in a different direction would appear to detract from the focus… which is about trying to deal with the climate crisis.”
Simon Kofe, the minister for justice, communication, and foreign affairs for the government of Tuvalu, tweeted that nuclear power carried risks, especially after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. “As we discuss nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific, we must also address concerns about increased militarization of the region,” he wrote.
The Treaty of Rarotonga, signed in 1985, was designed to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons and vehicles in the region. Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown has said that the AUKUS agreement will help to destabilize the Pacific.
“We’ve already seen it will lead to an escalation of tension, and we’re not happy with that as a region,” Brown told he Cook Island News.
Brown’s counterpart in Kiribati, Anote Tong, agreed: “It has the potential to do that [violate the treaty] from what we hear that’s been planned around Nuclear Submarines… that would seem in contradiction.”
The failure of Australia to consult with the Pacific Islands before the initial AUKUS announcement caused consternation in the region that has only been mildly placated by the Labor government’s attempts to better foster relations via direct engagement.
While Solomon Islands and Fiji seem inclined to accept the arrangement, despite their divergent relationships with China, there is a hesitancy from the smaller islands to accept nuclear-powered submarines into a zone that suffered catastrophic damage from the nuclear testing that occurred up until the signing of the Treaty of Rarotonga. As such, Brown notes that any nuclear power in the region isn’t compatible with peace.
“The name Pacific means peace, so to have this increase of naval nuclear vessels coming through the region is in direct contrast with that,” he said.