In September 2021, three allied powers—Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—declared an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” (AUKUS) that startled Southeast Asia. Among its initiatives, AUKUS commits to equip Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines (SSN). Some member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) found AUKUS deeply concerning. The acquisition of nuclear submarine technology by the non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) Australia is akin to breaking a taboo: Australia might likely fuel the SSN reactor with weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). Although access by a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) party to HEU does not literally violate the 1968 Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), it might undermine the spirit of non-proliferation at large, especially when the HEU is destined to fuel a weapon of war. Moreover, Australia’s SSNs will add to the growing list of submarine fleets already operating in and around Southeast Asian waters where accidents and incidents at sea could occur. Facing this likelihood, Southeast Asians should ask AUKUS members for greater scrutiny and transparency about Australia’s SSN program.
Southeast Asian Critiques of AUKUS
Indonesia and Malaysia are the ASEAN countries most critical of AUKUS. Both have emphasised concerns over the ‘nuclear’ aspects of AUKUS. In a public statement, Indonesia’s foreign ministry “takes note cautiously of the Australian Government’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines” and “stresses” Australia “to continue meeting all of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” Likewise, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Yaakob declared AUKUS as being “a catalyst towards a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region.” The reaction of other regional countries seems more sanguine in comparison. Vietnam, for instance, merely called Australia to use “nuclear energy” for “peaceful purposes.”
While Indonesia and Malaysia are critical of the nuclear dimension of AUKUS, they seem to have conveyed qualified acceptance of AUKUS as a whole. Even the word AUKUS is missing from Indonesia’s foreign ministry statement cited above. Later in November 2021, Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto said he “fully” understood and respected Australia’s “national interests” to launch AUKUS. Malaysia, too, sees no contradiction between criticising AUKUS, on the one hand, and elevating security partnership with Australia, including under the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA), on the other. FPDA’s regular Exercise Bersama Lima often includes submarine participation, which may feature Australia’s future SSNs.
A Disingenuous Australia
ASEAN critics of AUKUS probably found Australia’s justification for SSNs to be disingenuous. Before settling on the French-designed diesel-powered Attack-class submarines in 2016, the SSN option had been mooted but was eventually not pursued further due to Australia’s technological, logistical and skill limitations. In hindsight, however, these limitations did not seem to be the main reason. Instead, it was because the US government had allegedly refused to export Australia its SSN technology. Now that the Biden administration has given the green light, Australia was quick to revisit — and take — the SSN option it had earlier discarded. Southeast Asians might rightly ask thus: would Canberra’s non-proliferation pledges be reversed as it did the Attack-class if future circumstances change? Indeed, not all Australians have abandoned the hope of having an indigenous nuclear deterrent capability, especially if their confidence in the robustness of the US alliance falters still further.
Moreover, Australia intends to use weapons-grade HEU to fuel its future SSN fleet. HEU could power the SSN for almost its entire lifetime without the need to refuel. This long gap skirts the imperatives to develop local nuclear infrastructure (which Canberra lacks and eschews) or rely on other countries for the same. But obtaining HEU casts doubt on the part of ASEAN governments in Canberra’s commitments to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty. While obtaining HEU is not inconsistent with the written provisions of non-proliferation regimes, including the NPT and SEANWFZ, AUKUS members are seemingly exploiting loopholes in those regimes—something that other countries could emulate. For instance, the NNWS South Korea might also explore the SSN option, which could lead it to follow Australia in seeking access to HEU.
Two Faces of Proliferation
To ASEAN critics, AUKUS brings forth two faces of proliferation: nuclear and conventional. On nuclear proliferation, Indonesia’s foreign ministry’s director-general, Abdul Kadir Jaelani, perhaps put it best: Australia’s SSN acquisition could “set a dangerous precedent” for other countries with similar ambitions to follow suit”. AUKUS may not motivate other NNWS to obtain HEU, but it could minimise their reluctance to. Curiously enough, Beijing’s expanding nuclear posture or even strategy does not invite ASEAN criticisms of the sort that AUKUS has prompted. Unlike Australia, China is already a nuclear weapons state (NWS) that is, arguably, more legitimate to modernise and expand its own nuclear arsenal, i.e. ‘vertical’ proliferation. This might also explain why few regional countries castigated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aimed at deterring direct NATO military intervention in support of Ukraine. If ASEAN countries publicly expressed little concern over Putin’s nuclear coercion (which is more escalatory), how likely are they to criticise Beijing, which is ‘only’ expanding its arsenal? To be fair, no ASEAN critiques are levelled specifically at the nuclear posture and strategy of Western NWS either.
While ASEAN critiques of AUKUS mainly concern the provision of HEU to Australia, the proliferation of nuclear submarines itself is no less concerning. As Indonesia’s Prabowo stated last November, AUKUS could “spark more countries seeking nuclear submarines.” Operating a submarine is a complex if highly risky endeavour, even for experienced operators. There are a surprising number of nuclear submarine accidents.The latest occurred in October 2021 when the US Navy’s SSN USS Connecticut hit a seamount in the South China Sea. Though the accident only injured some crew, the damage and casualties could have been worse, which can include radioactive leak and contamination of marine resource-rich waters of Southeast Asia. If an operator as experienced as the US Navy still encounters accidents, imagine the risk profile for Australia the newcomer, which has hitherto only operated diesel submarines.
Standalone accidents are not the only risk of submarine proliferation. While submarines are essentially weapons of war, in peacetime they are most useful for espionage missions, among others. Disputed maritime areas and geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific have led many countries to acquire or deploy submarines for intelligence collection on their competitors or potential adversaries. Espionage activities could tempt submarine operators to conduct risky underwater manoeuvres and trigger incidents-at-sea with target submarines or surface forces. These incidents could provoke ‘accidental’ wars especially when the countries involved start to trade blame over the real culprit.
Such accidental wars would be catastrophic to ASEAN whose waters are already a crossroad and potential hunting grounds for submarines of various non-regional naval powers. Even in limited war scenarios over the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea, insulating Southeast Asian waters and airspace would be near to impossible, which could subject ASEAN countries to collateral damage. Firstly, parts of the South China Sea are already within the territorial waters of some ASEAN countries. Secondly, combat necessities would oblige belligerent submarines to seek and neutralise enemy units beyond declared or pre-designated combat areas while maintaining stealth to avoid positive identification by target and neutral countries alike.
Somewhat illustrative of the second is the sinking of the Argentine warship General Belgrano by the UK Navy’s SSN HMS Conqueror during the Falklands War in 1982. Conqueror fired and sunk the Belgrano outside Britain’s own designated ‘Total Exclusion Zone’ where combat was supposed to ensue. Legality aside, the fluidity of war is always such that rules of engagement are not and cannot be immutable. While military conflict over the South China Sea or Taiwan Straits might not replicate the South Atlantic’s Falklands, the lesson holds true: no combatants can nor will give absolute guarantees that prior rules of engagement will be strictly observed.
Southeast Asians must accept that AUKUS is here to stay. They should understand that AUKUS merely reaffirms the US government’s (and the UK’s) security alliance with Australia, which has come under political and economic pressure from China. As far as non-proliferation is concerned, nuclear-powered Australian submarines are better—or less bad—than a nuclear-armed Australia. In return for ASEAN ‘acceptance’ of AUKUS, the former could ask the latter to improve transparency on the Australian SSN program, especially the handling of its reactor and fuel, in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The ‘Nuclear Responsibilities Toolkit’ developed by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and University of Birmingham’s Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) in 2021 may help ASEAN and AUKUS members to figure out some of the working arrangements. In essence, nuclear responsibilities encourage all stakeholders to empathise with one another. For their part, AUKUS members should take ASEAN critiques about the Australian SSN program as a genuine concern. ASEAN observers should be allowed to monitor some stages of the program, with protocols on classified data to be negotiated and agreed early on between ASEAN and AUKUS members. This arrangement is not meant to curtail Australia’s sovereign decision-making on the SSN program. Rather, it aims to reassure ASEAN that the SSN program will not compromise the IAEA safeguards that Canberra has pledged itself to comply with.
ASEAN could then invite Australia to deploy the SSNs in regional exercises with other non-regional navies, including China’s. Notwithstanding that secrecy and stealth reign supreme in submarine warfare, willing operators could establish and promote cooperative measures, such as submarine safety and rescue protocols or an underwater ‘Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea’ (CUES), to reduce accidents and incidents at sea. Such measures could apply in regional joint exercise scenarios to govern interactions among submarines, and between submarines and other naval units of the various participating nations. These measures can hopefully discourage submarine operators from taking risky manoeuvres that could provoke incidents and accidental wars with catastrophic consequences to ASEAN and AUKUS members alike.
This article is co-published with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.
Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an Associate Research Fellow, Maritime Security Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Universitas Indonesia.
Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.