Pacific resentment for AUKUS deepens

THERE is a groundswell of resentment against Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s AUKUS submarine deals with the US and UK, the anger directed against the lack of consultation and cost-effectiveness of the multi-billion dollar deal.
Pacific resentment for AUKUS deepens Pacific resentment for AUKUS deepens Pacific resentment for AUKUS deepens Pacific resentment for AUKUS deepens Pacific resentment for AUKUS deepens

Pacific is united in its non-nuclear stance

Staff Reporter and Greg Fry

Malcolm Turnbull has joined the chorus of former prime ministers criticising the government's $368 billion AUKUS deal, saying there are more risks than there are rewards.
A day after Paul Keating's frank criticism, in which he labelled the deal the "worst in all history", reports that Turnbull was more measured in his criticism, pointing blame at his successor Scott Morrison but conceding the decision was already made.
He once again criticised Morrison for scrapping the French submarine deal, saying it was a "tragic omission" that the option of a nuclear propulsion submarine with France was not pursued and questioning Britain's economic stability.
Last week, Albanese joined UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden in announcing the "optimal pathway" for AUKUS.
Australia will host rotations of its allies' nuclear submarines until purchasing three to five Collins-class submarines early next decade. By the 2040s Australia will have built first-of-class British submarines with US propulsion and weapons systems.
During his interview on ABC Radio on Thursday morning, Turnbull raised questions about sovereignty, the human resources challenge, and the future of Australia's naval workers given the lack of a civil nuclear industry.
He also questioned why Australia was taking a "risk" in building first-of-class British submarines in Australia while also running US Virginia-class submarines.
"The reality is, this will take a lot more time, cost a great deal more money, have a lot more risk than if we had proceeded with the submarine project we had with France that Morrison recklessly cancelled," Turnbull said.
"We will be paying for it in terms of dollars, of years lost, and in very, very high risk of execution.
"We will have to train up crews and commanders to command (the Virginia-class submarines) and we'll have to set up the regulatory and supervisory nuclear agencies to ensure that they can be safely operated under Australian law and under Australian regulations because if we don't do that, then they'll operate under American regulations … that wouldn't be a sovereign capability."
Turnbull also questioned what would happen to the thousands of submariners and other workers involved in the nuclear process given they would be unable to find work in Australia after.
Turnbull said if Australia had gone with the French nuclear propulsion submarine, which uses a lower grade of uranium, trained workers could find work in similar roles in the civil industry.
Because of the high grade of uranium used in the US nuclear propulsion, and given the civil industry uses low grade, Turnbull said retiring workers would likely move overseas.
Turnbull also questioned whether Britain would be the most stable partner in AUKUS, given its economic instability.
"We're talking about a long-term partnership with the UK. The UK is not present in the Asia Pacific," he said.
"It has enormous economic problems and Britain has seven million people on the NHS waiting list. Is Britain going to be financially strong enough to be our partner in this submarine project? That is significant.
"The Royal Navy and the British Navy have been shrinking and this is because of budget constraints … Their economy is the slowest growing economy of any major economy in the world.
"It's one thing to have the US as your partner … The UK has real challenges and unlike France is not actually in the Asia Pacific."
Academics have roundly criticised the AUKUS sub deal, reflecting the views of many island nations in the Pacific. One such view was expressed in November 2021 by Greg Fry who is an honorary associate professor at the Department of Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University, and adjunct associate professor at the University of the South Pacific.
When he announced the new AUKUS security partnership, Prime Minister Morrison claimed that it will "enhance our contribution to our growing network of partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region", including "our dear Pacific family". It won't, writes Greg Fry of the Australian National University.
Initial Pacific responses to the AUKUS security partnership note that it undermines the Pacific community's deep commitment to keeping the Pacific nuclear-free.
Kiribati President Taneti Maamau said that the development of nuclear submarines puts the region at risk, and raises some troubling memories. "Our people were victims of nuclear testing… we still have trauma… with that in mind, with anything to do with nuclear, we thought it would be a courtesy to raise it, to discuss it with your neighbours", he said.
It is true that Australia's new submarines will not be nuclear-armed, and therefore not in contravention of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. But this misses the point that the shared and deeply felt Pacific commitment to a nuclear-free region goes well beyond the weapons prohibitions listed in the treaty.
Pacific islanders believe passionately in a broader concept of a nuclear-free Pacific. This derives from their lived experience of being used as the "proving grounds" for nuclear weapons testing from the 1940s to the 1990s.
The explosion of hundreds of nuclear devices by France, Britain and the United States involved the destruction of communities, forced migration, and created widespread health effects in surrounding populations. It has made some atolls uninhabitable, and destroyed livelihoods based on lagoon fishing.
It would also be a mistake for Australia to dismiss such concerns on the basis of claims that the nuclear reactors that propel the submarines are perfectly safe.
The lived experience of the Pacific is that such assurances about the safety of nuclear power should never be believed. Such assurances were given to Pacific islanders from Bikini, Enewetak, French Polynesia, and Christmas Island. In each case they proved to be false.
This is why the Pacific is acting together to raise concerns about proposed dumping of nuclear wastes from Fukushima, as it did in relation to past Japanese proposals to dump radioactive wastes in the Pacific; and why the Pacific Islands Forum has "called on the US government to increase its monitoring [of nuclear storage at Runit atoll] and to address health consequences related to the nuclear testing programme."
Moreover, the danger of a submarine accident is real. In 2005, a US nuclear attack submarine, USS San Francisco, crashed into an uncharted sea mount in the waters of the Caroline Islands, part of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Although there was major damage to the front of the boat and to the crew, the crash, remarkably, did not damage the nuclear reactor. There have also been accidents outside the Pacific islands region, most recently in October 2021, involving USS Connecticut in the South China Sea; but also the loss with all hands of the nuclear-powered USS Scorpion in the Atlantic in May 1968.
While the public commentary within Australia, and the Pacific response to AUKUS, have focused on the Australian acquisition of nuclear submarines between 2040 and 2060, the more worrying threat to a nuclear-free Pacific in the next two decades comes from the fundamental shift in Australian-American defence relations, announced as an accompaniment to AUKUS.
The Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) joint statement, issued in the same week as the AUKUS announcement, included an agreement that Australia will establish "a combined logistics, sustainment, and maintenance enterprise to support high end warfighting and combined military operations in the region."
At the time, Defence Minister Peter Dutton - now leader of Australia's official opposition - explained that if the new agreed arrangement "includes basing, and includes storage of different ordnances, I think that is in Australia's best interests." Such basing for US submarines and bombers in support of "high-end warfighting" would seem to necessarily imply the presence of nuclear weapons, although the official response would be that this cannot be confirmed or denied.
This therefore raises the very real possibility of a more direct and imminent contravention of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone prohibitions, under article 5 of the Rarotonga treaty, on the stationing of nuclear weapons within the zone.
At the very least, this would require Australia to notify the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum of these developments, under article 9.
This broader shift in Australian defence policy associated with AUKUS also threatens to undermine another strongly held shared commitment of the Pacific family - that regional security is best promoted through a "friends to all" approach, and that great power rivalry should be excluded from the region. A number of commentators have seen this Australian policy change as fundamental - as a "crossing of the Rubicon", as a revision of Australia's role "from deputy sheriff to 51st state", and as Australia "becoming a major US military base for possible military action against China."
By contrast, the Pacific family, with the possible exception of Palau, endorses a "friends to all" approach, valuing their economic relations with China alongside their close relations with western countries. They do not want to be aligned with security pacts aimed at containing China, and are resistant to the idea of joining the Indo-Pacific strategy promoted by Washington, Canberra and Tokyo.
They have promoted their own view of regional security, captured in the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security (to which Australia is a signatory). The Boe Declaration pointedly emphasises a broad concept of security, that includes human security, humanitarian assistance, environmental security, and regional cooperation, in building resilience to disasters and climate change.
The Pacific Islands Forum members advocate a Blue Pacific strategy as the unifying narrative for the regional community. This defines a Pacific islands region with its own priorities and purposes, in contrast to the dominant Indo-Pacific security narrative endorsed by western partners.
The Australian government's undermining of these core commitments of the Pacific community has been done without consultation. Presenting this fait accompli as a contribution to "our dear Pacific family" only adds insult to injury.
The last 50 years of Pacific diplomacy has been the story of Pacific island leaders asserting the rights of Pacific societies against the assumed right of metropolitan powers, to determine what happens in the Pacific islands region. At the very least, they demand that relationships within the Pacific family be conducted on an equal, open and respectful basis.
Greg Fry is Honorary Associate Professor at the Department of Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University, and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of the South Pacific


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