RECNA NPT Blog 2022 Final Edition No.3

3. New challenges in nuclear nonproliferation: Nuclear sharing and AUKUS

At this year’s NPT Review Conference, the traditional composition of “nuclear-weapon States(NWS) and their allies that prioritize security” versus “non-nuclear weapon States(NNWS) that seek the prompt promotion of nuclear disarmament” seemed to have been overshadowed by the escalating confrontation among nuclear weapon states. In particular, the heated exchanges between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, China regarding the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons raised concerns about the future of the NPT regime and nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in the world.

First, the U.S., the U.K., and NATO countries were at loggerheads with Russia and China over the issue of “nuclear sharing”. The issue of nuclear sharing has long been pointed out by some non-aligned countries as a violation of their non-proliferation obligations under the NPT. However, the U.S. has maintained since the drafting of the NPT that nuclear sharing does not constitute “proliferation of nuclear weapons” and that it has gained the understanding of other nations. In fact, this issue has not been highlighted as such a serious problem at past NPT Review Conferences. Recently, however, against the backdrop of the conflict between the U.S. and Russia, Russia has been forcefully repeating its claim that the issue is a violation of the NPT, and it has come into a fierce debate with the U.S., which has maintained its stance that “this issue was already settled when the NPT was drafted”. Furthermore, this time, China has joined Russia in harshly criticizing the U.S. and NATO countries. Perhaps China’s clear assertion on this issue was prompted by its concern that the debate over nuclear sharing has emerged in some parts of East Asia as well, including Japan.

Reflecting this debate, the first draft of report of the Main Committee I included a phrase, for the first time in the NPT Reviews, “the importance for States parties that are part of military alliances that include nuclear-weapon States to report, as a significant transparency and confidence building measure, on steps taken to reduce and eliminate the role of nuclear weapons in national and collective security doctrines.” Unfortunately, this proposal was opposed by NATO countries, including the U.S., and was deleted in the revised version, but it is still noteworthy that “the responsibilities to be assumed by NNWS under the nuclear umbrella” was seriously discussed in the NPT Review. This discussion about the nuclear alliance might be an important step in considering nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in the future.

In addition, the decision by Australia, with the cooperation of the U.S. and the U.K., to proceed with the introduction of nuclear-powered submarines raised concerns among the Asia-Pacific nations, China, in particular, vehemently opposed the acquisition of highly enriched uranium for fuel by NNWS for use in submarine propulsion, arguing that it would create a “loophole” in the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Of course, China’s opposition was undoubtedly motivated by security concerns over Australia’s deployment of nuclear submarines under the auspices of the United States and the United Kingdom, but the issue of “enriched uranium for nuclear submarine propulsion” has taken on a complicated aspect.

China, mindful of Australia’s plan to introduce nuclear submarines, has stated that the transfer of highly enriched uranium(HEU) by nuclear weapon states such as the United States and the United Kingdom to NNWS such as Australia, even under the guise of “propulsion,” is a violation of non-proliferation obligations, and that nuclear weapon states should not transfer to NNWS under any guise whatsoever any uranium that has the potential to be used as material for nuclear weapons in a manner that does not subject them to International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) Safeguards. In response, Brazil and Argentina argued that if the transfer of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear weapon state to a NNWS is a problem, then the possession of nuclear submarines by NNWS is not a problem if they produce nuclear fuel in their own countries. However, at a side event concerning Australia’s possession of nuclear submarines, there was an opinion that allowing the production of HEU within a NNWS would weaken the non-proliferation regime because it would not be subject to IAEA Safeguards, and should not be allowed even for the reason of producing fuel for nuclear submarines.

Regarding the issue of nuclear submarines, while there is a concern that the introduction of Australia’s nuclear submarines will increase tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, some countries are concerned that the possibility of peaceful uses of nuclear energy other than power generation, including the development of nuclear engines for ships, will be restricted, and there appears to be a difference in temperature among developing countries as well. In addition, since it will be some time before Australia actually introduces nuclear submarines, the hard-line objections asserted by China were not reflected in the draft report, and the final draft only briefly referred to the need for transparency in consultation with the IAEA in the introduction of nuclear propulsion for navy vessels by NNWS. This issue is expected to become even more contentious when the possession of nuclear submarines by Australia and other NNWS materializes in the future, adding yet another potential point of contention to the NPT.

(Satoshi Hirose)

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