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Fate of Australian subs in the balance

Australia should know whether or not its nuclear submarine ambitions will be realized late next month.

The program is the cornerstone of the AUKUS security pact that groups Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, unveiled in September 2021. Since then only one of those who signed the pact remains in power, US President Joe Biden. Scott Morrison, as prime minister of Australia, lost power in an election last May, and his British counterpart Boris Johnson quit in July.

Since September 2021 the three countries have had a working party looking into the feasibility of the submarine project and in particular the capabilities required to enable the production and operation of nuclear-powered submarines by Australia, but more importantly the transfer of technology.

There is also a question on nuclear nonproliferation sensitivities and exemptions under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The group was given 18 months to submit its findings, with a report expected toward the end of next month.

Australia has made no secret it is looking at US nuclear submarines rather than UK ones.

However, not every US member of Congress is in favor of sharing this sensitive nuclear technology, even with an ally as close as Australia, even though the country is the second-largest US defense export market after Saudi Arabia, according to the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration.

One Australian analyst, Binoy Kampmark, said the thinking behind the AUKUS pact was “shoddy”.

The submarine program has raised serious questions about the extent US power will subordinate Australia further in future conflicts, has brought into question Australia’s sovereignty, and has raised the specter of regional nuclear proliferation.

The Labor government that took power in Australia in May has said it is committed to buying eight nuclear-powered submarines, despite the cost, which some experts say could exceed A$20 billion ($14.3 billion).

Adam Smith, a senior member of the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, has aired serious doubts about the security pact.

Stumbling block

The biggest stumbling block to the viability of the pact is technology transfer, he told a seminar in Washington on Jan 11.

“Our (US) excessive focus on technology export controls could scuttle the three-way security pact,” he said.

During a webinar conducted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia, in August, US Navy Rear Admiral Scott Pappano, the executive officer for strategic submarines, was asked if the US had the capacity to meet Australia’s nuclear submarine ambitions.

According to a report by the Japanese magazine Nikkei, Pappano said: “If you are asking my opinion, if we are going to add additional submarine construction to our industrial base, that would be detrimental to us right now, without significant investment to provide additional capacity, capacity to do that,” adding “and that goes for the US as well”.

Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher in the arms transfers program with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told China Daily: “Obviously, it is a very big project for which many decisions need to be made. But speaking personally there is still a long way to go, and we still don’t have any details.”

Some of Australia’s regional neighbors, particularly Indonesia, have questioned the need for Australia to have nuclear-powered submarines.

Jakarta outlined its concerns in a working paper presented to the United Nations nuclear nonproliferation review conference in August.

Susannah Patton, Southeast Asia program director at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, said that while differences over AUKUS can be managed in the short term Australia’s submarine ambitions stand to have lasting implications on its relationships with Indonesia and with others in the region.

source: blobal.chinadaily