On the 15th of September 2021, a new security pact was signed between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America (AUKUS). This trilateral agreement will now enable Australia to have nuclear-powered submarines, making them the 7th nation to have access to such technology.
The pact has surprised the international community, as there has been a move towards nuclear de-escalation since the Cold War. It is important to note that, although Australia will now have nuclear-powered submarines, it does not necessarily mean that they can develop nuclear weapons. Despite being nuclear-powered, nuclear-powered submarines are not the same as nuclear weapons. However, there have been concerns that Australia could use this technology to develop nuclear weapons.
Whilst none of the official statements from any of the governments involved have mentioned this, analysts are interpreting the pact as a way to reassert Western power in the Indo-Pacific region. Since the end of the Cold War, China has been viewed as a rising threat to the West in both economic and security terms.
Amid recent tensions with Beijing, establishing Australia as a nuclear entity in the region would increase Britain and America’s influence in China’s territory. Concerns have also been raised over the possibility of Chinese incursions into Taiwan, which has historically been a disputed territory.
Beijing responded angrily to the news, with Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson accusing the UK and US of double standards for creating the new partnership.
What comes of the agreement is yet to be seen. The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has shown how the West’s global power is diminishing and with China’s status as a competing power on the global stage this new partnership could be setting the beginning of a “new cold war”.
Regardless, Australia’s newfound nuclear capabilities, even if it is just submarines so far, marks a new development for nuclear issues and proves that even if the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear weapons has not.