U.S. Nuclear Sub Pact with Australia and Britain Sends a Message to the World

Written by: Ryan Ockenden, Associate Editor.

The U.S. and U.K have partnered to enter a deal with Australia, referred to as AUKUS, which enables those nations “to share artificial intelligence, undersea capabilities…other advanced technologies and deepen cooperation on a range of defense capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region.[1] China has claimed that this deal damages regional peace, intensifies an arms race, undermines nuclear non-proliferation efforts, and goes against cooperation and trust.[2] That assertion is wholly rich considering China’s actions in the region.

China’s ever-expanding presence in the Indo-Pacific region is troubling. It has acted boldly in its militaristic actions toward other nations – like Vietnam and the Philippines – challenging territorial water claims, land claims, and access to natural resources.[3] The U.S. has been delicate in criticisms of China’s activity, but U.S. officials have called it ‘bullying’ and interference with peace and stability.[4]

AUKUS is a point of contention for one of the United States’ oldest allies – France. France was left out of this agreement and feels betrayed.[5] To make matters worse, France had its own agreement with Australia to provide conventional, less technologically sophisticated submarines.[6] In the new deal with the U.S. and U.K., Australia is abandoning their agreement with France, which will certainly set up a legal battle and fracture friendship between the U.S. and France, who is critical to U.S. relations with Europe. Consequently, French and EU officials have gotten the message: they must fend for themselves in creating a China policy.[7]

China’s assertion that AUKUS undermines nuclear non-proliferation efforts holds no water. American, British, and Australian officials have stated that the submarines will be powered by nuclear reactors but will not have nuclear weapons on board, therefore they comply with the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to which they all are ratified, members.[8] According to NPT, as nuclear powers, the U.S. and U.K. cannot give nuclear weapons to Australia, a non-nuclear power.[9] At the same time, Australia cannot accept nuclear weapons from either nation.[10] Since neither of these activities appears to be happening, China’s claims fall on shaky grounds.

Still, China may challenge AUKUS but are unlikely to succeed. France, however, has another gripe – one of their oldest allies left them out of an agreement that destroys one of their own deals with Australia. This makes clear the Biden Administration’s view on the EU’s role in confronting China moving forward.


[1] Michael Collins, Australia to get nuclear submarines in new deal with US, UK, sending potential message to China, USA Today (Sept. 15, 2021) available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2021/09/15/national-security-u-s-australia-u-k-form-security-partnership/8349082002/.

[2] Trevor Hunnicutt, et al., China, France denounce U.S. nuclear sub pact with Britain, Australia, Reuters (Sept. 16, 2021) available at https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australia-get-us-nuclear-submarine-technology-china-looms-large-2021-09-15/.

[3] See Yen Nee Lee, Kamala Harris kicks off Vietnam visit by calling out China’s ‘bullying’ tactics, CNBC (Aug. 25, 2021) available at https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/25/vp-kamala-harris-talks-south-china-sea-in-vietnam-amid-us-china-rivalry.html.

[4] See id.

[5] Roger Cohen, France Is Outraged by U.S. Nuclear Submarine Deal With Australia, NYTimes (Sept. 16, 2021) available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/16/world/europe/france-australia-uk-us-submarines.html.

[6] Id.

[7] See id.

[8] Collins, supra note 1.

[9] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, U.N., Jul. 1, 1968, 729 U.N.T.S. 161.

[10] Id.

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