POSTSCRIPT / October 5, 2021 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Nuclear submarines aren’t nuclear arms

PRESIDENT Duterte, not the foreign secretary, lays down policy on how the Philippines is to deal with other nations, but it would be more reassuring to hear the two officials speak with one voice on the same topic at different times.

The choral rendition would even improve if presidential spokesman Harry Roque avoided the high notes of foreign relations, leaving that realm to Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. That way there would be less chances of any dissonance.

Roque said Tuesday that President Duterte was concerned that a “regional nuclear arms race” might ensue after Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed a security partnership allowing Canberra to acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology.

The three countries have forged what is now referred to as the AUKUS, an enhanced security partnership that they said would improve their security shield and promote “deeper information and technology sharing.”

The AUKUS enables Australia to acquire quickly nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. Securing at least eight such submarines initially is being considered.

Locsin is supportive of the AUKUS, saying recently that “the enhancement of a near abroad ally’s ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.”

On Monday, Roque said the Philippines wants to make sure the AUKUS would not violate the Constitution and the 1995 Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty which aims to preserve the region as a nuclear weapon-free area.

But Locsin said recently that without the actual presence of nuclear weapons, the Philippines cannot infer violation of the treaty.

For reference, Art. II, Sec. 8, of the Constitution provides: “The Philippines, consistent with the national interest, adopts and pursues a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons in its territory.” It speaks of nuclear weapons, not of nuclear-fueled warships.

As we said in the head, a nuclear submarine is not a nuclear weapon – except probably if/when its crazed captain steers it kamikaze-style into a high-value target at sea.

 Some implications of AUKUS

WE share below excerpts from an article on the AUKUS written by Patrick Wintour, diplomatic editor of The Guardian, for its issue of Sept. 16, 2021:

What is AUKUS? – It is a new three-way strategic defense alliance between Australia, the UK and US, initially to build a class of nuclear-propelled submarines, but also to work together in the Indo-Pacific, where the rise of China is seen as an increasing threat, and develop wider technologies. It means Australia will end the contract given to France in 2016 to build 12 diesel electric-powered submarines to replace its Collins submarine fleet. For the first time, the US will share nuclear propulsion technology with an ally apart from the UK.

Why did Australia want to change its suppliers? – The perceived scale of the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific region – a vast zone stretching through some of the world’s most vital seaways east from India to Japan and south to Australia – has grown dramatically in recent years. Nuclear-propelled submarines have longer range, are quicker and are harder to detect. But the UK national security adviser, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, has made it clear AUKUS is about more than a class of submarine, describing the pact as “perhaps the most significant capability collaboration in the world anywhere in the past six decades”.

What is China’s response? – Relations between the three allies and China were already at a low and the deal, which did not name China but was widely understood to be in response to its expansionism in the South China Sea and aggression towards Taiwan, drew a swift response from Beijing. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the three countries were in the grip of an “obsolete cold war zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts” and should “respect regional people’s aspiration […] otherwise they will only end up hurting their own interests”. China also questioned Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.

When will the submarines be ready and who will build them? – No date has been announced, and the scoping phase itself will last 18 months. It is possible America may operate attack submarines out of HMAS Stirling, an Australian naval base in Perth, in the interim. The US will lead the project, and the precise technology it is willing to share is unclear, as is the UK role in the supply of the submarines.

How angry is France? – Take this tweet from the French ambassador to the US, Philippe Étienne, hours after the deal: “Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French navy defeated the British navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States.” A statement from the French embassy said the decision to “exclude” France “shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret” while the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, less diplomatically called the deal “a stab in the back”.

Back in 2016, France had described the Australian contract as the deal of the century and the start of a 50-year marriage. It was intended to symbolize a wider Australian-French alliance in the Indo-Pacific that would extend to weapons intelligence and communications.

What will be the immediate impact of the deal? – Relations between Beijing and Washington look set to continue on their current tricky path, while the western alliance has also been shaken.

Emmanuel Macron believed Australian concerns had been assuaged, despite Canberra repeatedly warning France about delays and overruns, but it may also be the US made Australia a deal it could not refuse.

However, it also seems apparent the US did not trust Macron on China, since he often said he wanted to steer a middle course between two great powers, speaking of an autonomous Europe operating beside America and China

What is the geopolitical significance? – It means China faces a powerful new defense alliance in the Indo-Pacific, one that has been welcomed by regional partners such as Japan. It also reaffirms that, after Brexit, the US still wants the UK, and not the EU, as its key military partner.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 5, 2021)

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