To date, US-China relations have steadily deteriorated. One of the reasons for the cooling of relations between the two countries is Beijing’s growing ambition to gain control of the South Pacific region, while Washington intends to thwart China’s growing military and economic power. To maintain their current position in the region, US leaders are strengthening defense cooperation with Australia, which in its turn opposes China achieving regional hegemony.
The AUKUS defense alliance, which was formed in September 2021 and consists of the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, focuses on countering the growth of China’s influence in the South Pacific and showing Chinese authorities that Washington is willing to assert its interests in the region both on its own and through its allies.
Shortly after joining AUKUS, Australia terminated an earlier agreement with France to purchase nuclear-powered submarines. This was because the United States, citing the terms of the newly formed defense alliance, stated that participants in the tripartite agreement had the right to build their nuclear submarines, and thus it transferred the relevant technologies to the Australian side.
Australia, which currently has no nuclear weapons, would gain access to tons of highly enriched uranium needed to build nuclear submarines. According to certain experts, this will ensure that Australia acquires enough uranium to develop nuclear missiles. If this happens, the erstwhile non-nuclear power will become a nuclear power without any semblance of international oversight and without signing the relevant agreements.
For the first time in 50 years, the US is giving another country access to its submarine technology. The first country to receive American developments was Great Britain. Now Washington is sharing its technology with Australia. If Canberra succeeds in putting a nuclear submarine into service, it will join the list of countries using nuclear submarines, becoming the owner of one of the most powerful naval forces in the world.
It is very important to note that the trilateral AUKUS partnership on nuclear submarines is the first recorded case in the world history of two countries with access to nuclear weapons openly transferring enriched uranium to a state that does not have a nuclear arsenal. Such an unprecedented event threatens established norms of international law and escalates international tensions.
Naturally, such a development can only worry China, as it risks clashing with a country that is not sympathetic to Beijing’s policies and is relatively close to China’s borders. To avoid this, Chinese diplomats are working to prevent the transfer of uranium enrichment technologies to Australia by speaking out against it in various international organizations.
On September 13, 2022, Wang Qun, Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China to the UN office in Vienna, said that the transfer of highly enriched uranium by the US side to Australia runs counter to the current nuclear nonproliferation regime and thus violates international law. The diplomat stressed that the resolution of such issues falls under the jurisdiction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, according to the PRC representative, the actions of AUKUS contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world in violation of the IAEA Charter.
On the same day, the official representative of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mao Ning, called on the IAEA to be as neutral, professional, and objective as possible regarding AUKUS’s decisions in the field of nuclear submarine construction.
Mao Ning said that IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi submitted the IAEA safety report on AUKUS to the international organization’s board of directors on September 9, 2022, adding that consultations on technical issues have been held between the Alliance member states and the IAEA.
Mao Ning expressed her appreciation of the IAEA chief’s decision to initiate a dialog with AUKUS and subsequently prepare a report on it. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s representative expressed concern about this report’s content. The Chinese diplomat is convinced that the absence of references to the world community’s concern about the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons as a result of AUKUS’s actions in this document is a bad sign. Mao Ning stressed that the IAEA does not pay due attention to the official position of many states that the AUKUS policy blatantly violates the NPT, destabilizes the situation in the region, and does not respect the demands of other countries. She also pointed out that problems of this magnitude should be resolved by all IAEA member states as part of a general discussion.
In turn, the rhetoric of IAEA representatives was less harsh. On September 12, 2022, Rafael Grossi said that he rated the dialog with AUKUS positively. According to the IAEA Director General, the interaction between the organization entrusted to him and AUKUS will continue so that the alliance member countries fulfill their stated obligations to comply with international security law. Grossi said that the IAEA will do everything in its power to prevent nuclear proliferation.
This is not the first recent case of Washington failing to consider other countries’ interests and international law. On August 3, 2022, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, without coordinating her actions with Beijing, visited Taiwan, an internationally recognized territory of China controlled by the unrecognized Republic of China. By acting contemptuously toward the Chinese side, the US demonstrated its desire to be a power that plays by its own rules.
The Chinese economy is growing year by year, and the number of countries friendly to Beijing continues to grow, while the United States’ stake in world politics is declining. Washington’s assertive decisions evoke hostility among many members of the world community. Sooner or later, American leaders will have to rethink their pattern of behavior, as it will be easier for China to resist American expansion.
Petr Konovalov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.