20 September 2021

Corporal Frisk: “A RAUKUS in the Pacific”

The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.

As the quote above shows, while there is understandably some anger directed towards Australia for breaking the contract (and doing so a mere two weeks after Both sides committed to deepen defence industry cooperation and enhance their capability edge in the region. Ministers underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program during a joint 2+2 ministerial meeting between French and Australian foreign and defence ministers), the main villain in the French eyes seem to be the US who not only outmanoeuvred the French, but brought along the British and left the French out in the cold. Crucially, there seems to have been little to no warning given to the French, who even if they must have known that the Shortfin Barracuda was in trouble, most likely did not anticipate the US and UK unilaterally deciding to trash the long-held non-proliferation convention to not export reactor technology for use aboard SSNs. Interestingly, it does seem that the initiative – as well as the decision to keep the French in the dark – came from the Australians, making the French framing of this being a US diplomatic backstabbing of the higher order seem somewhat misplaced.

Robin Häggblom

The strategic partnership between US, UK, and Australia, announced last week out of the blue, became the controversy of the week on Twitter – and an opportunity to learn more than I expected to know about nuclear-powered submarines. But unlike most Twitter scandals this has the potential for long-lasting and wide-ranging consequences.

Japanese Sōryū-class submarine
The boat that Australia should have bought, the Japanese Sōryū-class. It has now been replaced with the even more capable Taigei-class, which is an iterative low-risk design. Source: Kaijō Jieitai JMSDF

Personally, I understand completely why the French are feeling betrayed and insulted – some of their supposedly closest allies just conspired in absolute secrecy for months to deprive them of a massive defense contract, and excluded them out of cooperation in a strategically important region. Keeping France in the dark like this seems a very immature decision, especially from people who are supposed to be seasoned diplomats. While Joe Biden is making grand pronouncements about the importance of allies, his actions are contradicting this rhetoric and making him look hypocritical. Appropriating a multi-billion deal from an ally is right out of Donald Trump’s playbook – except Trump would have immediately gloated all over Twitter, not deceived that ally for months. As the saying goes: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

The US ‘pivot to Asia’ seems intent on starting a new Cold War against China – but in that case, excluding, or at least not involving, other allies in this endeavor seems shortsighted and ill-planned. Never mind the Europeans, who would rather not get involved in the latest US muscle-flexing, but how about regional powers genuinely concerned about China’s aggressive stance? India, Japan, South Korea – were they consulted or informed? It will certainly be interesting to see their reactions in the future. I fear the US military-industrial complex – cut off from lucrative deals in Afghanistan – is pushing this anti-China coalition to sell weapons for a renewed arms race, while blindly ignoring the potential implications for nuclear nonproliferation.

While I can understand the strategic importance of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, I am not sure this new partnership will quite benefit them in the long term: details still need to be decided over a period of 18 months, meaning the actual delivery will be further delayed, and the costs are likely to be much higher than the canceled contract with the French. And who’s to say what happens after the US elections in 2024? A new president may want to renegotiate the terms, or retreat from this deal entirely.

In the 1980s, the United States prevented France and the UK from selling nuclear attack submarines to Canada. The main argument centered on the danger of nuclear proliferation associated with the naval nuclear fuel cycle. Indeed, the nonproliferation treaty has a well-known loophole: non-nuclear weapon states can remove fissile materials from international control for use in non-weapon military applications, specifically to fuel nuclear submarine reactors. These reactors require a significant amount of uranium to operate. Moreover, to make them as compact as possible, most countries operate their naval reactors with nuclear-weapon-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel.

With tons of weapons-grade uranium out of international safeguards, what could go wrong?

But if Morrison gets re-elected and the program continues, it will be for the United Stated to take up its responsibilities as the guardian of the nonproliferation regime. Poor nuclear arms control and nonproliferation decisions—such as leaving the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and approving the US-Indian nuclear deal—have so far been a trademark of the US Republican Party. It is difficult to understand the internal policy process that led the Democratic Biden administration to the AUKUS submarine announcement. It seems that just like in the old Cold War, arms racing and the search for short-term strategic advantage is now bipartisan.

Sébastien Philippe

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