Does AUKUS Violate the Pledge of a Nuclear-Free South Pacific? China Thinks It Might.

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Does AUKUS Violate the Pledge of a Nuclear-Free South Pacific? China Thinks It Might.

China is tapping into broader anti-nuclear sentiment in the region to attack Australia’s nuclear submarine deal.

Does AUKUS Violate the Pledge of a Nuclear-Free South Pacific? China Thinks It Might.
Credit: Pixabay

China is furious about the new AUKUS security partnership. Under the deal announced on September 15, the United States and United Kingdom will help Australia acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. A day after it became public, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blasted the pact as “extremely irresponsible” and one that “undermined regional peace and stability.” 

Zhao also referred to AUKUS as a potential violation of the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga that makes the South Pacific a nuclear weapons free zone. “Australia is now introducing nuclear submarine technology of strategic and military value,” he warned. “The international community, including Australia’s neighboring countries, has full reason to question whether Australia is serious about fulfilling its nuclear non-proliferation commitments.”

Can China credibly claim that AUKUS is antithetical to Rarotonga? Not when it comes to Rarotonga’s strict prohibitions on explosive devices. China could focus on the treaty’s broader intent and find precedent in Latin America, but the comparison is imperfect, and diplomatic support in the South Pacific will be hard to corral. China could withdraw from Rarotonga, but that would undermine its broader nuclear posture.

Beijing’s best bet is to use Rarotonga to inflame anti-nuclear sentiment in the South Pacific against AUKUS. In response, AUKUS members would do well to strengthen the Rarotonga regime and diminish China’s case.      

Faced with devastation from decades of nuclear testing by Western powers, over a dozen states in the South Pacific joined together in the mid-1980s to declare the region a nuclear weapon free zone. Under Rarotonga, regional states renounce the right to nuclear explosive devices of any kind. They further commit themselves to prevent nuclear testing, the stationing of nuclear explosive devices, and the dumping of radioactive waste anywhere in the region. Regional states can decide to allow nuclear transit for their territory. 

In its current form, AUKUS does not violate these restrictions. Nuclear-powered submarines are considered a controlled use of nuclear energy and outside the definition of an explosive device. U.S. President Joe Biden and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison have both given assurances that Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons under the deal. Some find China’s focus on Rarotonga as aiming to “ignore or misconstrue” that fact. Still, more extreme scenarios have been offered. “Unnamed military experts” in China’s state media publication The Global Times warned that the United States could easily equip the submarines with nuclear weapons in a time of conflict and make Australia “a target of a nuclear strike if a nuclear war breaks out.”  

Zhao offered a broader interpretation, one that depicts AUKUS as a violation of Rarotonga’s intent. There is precedent in Latin America for this. During the 1982 Falklands War – a conflict of great interest to China – Argentina accused the United Kingdom of violating its commitments to the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco for Latin America’s nuclear weapon free zone. Argentina not only claimed that the United Kingdom illegally brought nuclear weapons into the theater of conflict (later confirmed), but found British use of nuclear-powered submarines for warlike purposes in the South Atlantic to be an infraction. Argentina lost the cruiser ARA General Belgrano and over 300 of its crew members to an attack by the British nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, the only time a nuclear-powered submarine has sunk an enemy warship. 

Argentina’s accusations sparked regional debate. Like Rarotonga, Tlatelolco does not classify nuclear-powered submarines as nuclear weapons. But Tlatelolco’s oversight body found their use for war to violate the U.K.’s obligation to utilize nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes within the zone. Chile, which helped the United Kingdom in the conflict, thought the ruling “constituted a success for Argentina.” 

China has a tougher case to make. Unlike Tlatelolco, Rarotonga does not guarantee that all nuclear materials in the zone will be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. Australia’s hypothetical fleet has also yet to engage in combat and may never do so in a primarily deterrent role. Brazil’s current development of a nuclear-propelled submarine with French assistance – in part a legacy of insecurity felt in the South Atlantic from the Falklands War – further complicates any lessons from Latin America.

Reaching a regional consensus against AUKUS may not be worth the diplomatic effort. After “arduous negotiation” amongst members, Tlatelolco’s oversight body could only muster a simple resolution “to express its concern” with British actions. China would face obstacles to secure even that toothless reprimand. New Zealand will not allow Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines in its ports, but that policy adheres to national law, not Rarotonga. Although the issue strained relations between Washington and Wellington for decades, the two sides have worked around it. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was “pleased to see” AUKUS and maintains strong ties with its members under the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. 

The diplomatic response to AUKUS from the smaller island nations of the South Pacific has been mostly ambiguous and subdued, with China-friendly Kiribati an exception. Henry Puna, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) that is meant to address issues pertaining to Rarotonga, called on the international community “to prevent non-peaceful nuclear activities” and “uphold our nuclear-free zone.” But the PIF is fractured and unlikely to be an agent of change, especially with Australia as a leading member.   

China could act unilaterally. As a full member to Rarotonga’s additional protocols, it is legally bound not to test, use, or threaten to use nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. France, Russia, and the United Kingdom have made the same commitment, but not the United States. If China finds AUKUS to violate Rarotonga, Beijing could exercise its right to withdraw its negative security assurances to the region, but that would undermine the broader credibility of China’s “no-first-use” policy. To strengthen its pledge since 1964 to never initiate nuclear conflict, China has routinely asserted (most recently in a 2019 white paper) that it “is always committed to… not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon-states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally.” 

China’s best course is to continue what Zhao started: The use of Rarotonga as a touchstone to fan the flames of anti-nuclear sentiment against AUKUS. The tactic could find fertile ground at the grassroots level in the South Pacific. More so than any of the nine nuclear weapon free zones in existence, the fraught issues of nuclear transit and propulsion helped pave the path to Rarotonga. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, recreational skiffs laden with protesters made daring intercepts of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines in New Zealand’s harbors as part of a broad campaign for a nuclear-free Pacific. As the region-wide People’s Charter for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific declared in 1983, “only one nuclear submarine has to be lost in the sea… and the threat to the fish, and our livelihood is endangered for centuries.”

A recent collision by a U.S. nuclear submarine with an unknown object in the South China Sea serves as a stark reminder that real dangers exist with AUKUS, a comparison China was quick to make. The South Pacific maintains a rich repository of anti-nuclear groups and activists that can carry the argument forward. As one activist in Papua New Guinea recently shared, AUKUS is already viewed “with suspicion” for its potential to “disrupt the lives of indigenous people in the Pacific.”

In response to China’s use of Rarotonga in attacks on AUKUS, the members of AUKUS should strengthen the Rarotonga regime. They should offer transparency and guarantees in areas that matter most under the treaty, such as the proper disposal of radioactive waste. The United States should also become the final eligible nuclear-weapons state to ratify Rarotonga. The Obama administration concluded (and I have here as well) that adherence to the treaty would do little to imperil U.S. strategic capabilities or its regional claims of sovereignty. By making Rarotonga more robust, AUKUS members can help ease regional fears over their new deal and answer China’s criticism.

As Zhao warned, countries that don’t “do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development… will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.”