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Australia needs to be put on notice by Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders over abandoning its commitments under the South Pacific’s nuclear free accord — the Treaty of Rarotonga — by signing up to the controversial security pact, AUKUS, says the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG).

The deal by the Australian, the United Kingdom, and the United States governments is “highly problematic” and “heightens risks for nuclear proliferation” in the region, PANG coordinator Maureen Penjueli said.

“Security and defence pacts today are about the Pacific Ocean — which is our home — but it has never been with Pacific people, let alone our governments,” she said.

AUKUS is promoted as a trilateral partnership between the three allies to enable Australia to boost its military capacity by acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for its navy.

However, Australia, was a key part of PIF and also a party to the Rarotonga Treaty, the region’s principal nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agreement, Penjueli said.

The accord legally binds member states “not to manufacture, possess, acquire or have control of nuclear weapons (Article 3)”, as well as “to prevent nuclear testing in their territories (Article 6)”. The treaty further places an emphasis on keeping the region free from radioactive wastes.

Penjueli said that Pacific people had had first-hand experience of the threats of nuclear weapons testing, and continued to live with the sideeffects of historical nuclear catastrophes to this day.

Long list of nuclear threats
“We see AUKUS as just one in a long list of nuclear threats and issues that the region as a whole has been confronted with,” she said.

“We see Australia playing a key, often unilateral role, taking decisions around peace and security which is not aligned with Pacific peoples’ immediate priorities around security, in particular human security.

“AUKUS raises serious concerns over Australia’s intentions for its island neighbours.”

Pacific Island governments and civil society had been at the forefront in advocating for a nuclear free and independent Pacific.

They have expressed strong opposition to AUKUS since it was announced in September, which experts say undermines regional solidarity on the issue of a nuclear free Pacific.

Australuan foreign policy analyst Dr Greg Fry said that the more immediate threat to the South Pacific nuclear-free zone lay not in the nuclear submarines, which were not due until 2040 and beyond, “but in the fundamental shift in Australian-US defence arrangements which were announced alongside AUKUS”.

According to Dr Fry, these arrangements included the possible home-basing of American submarines, surface vessels, and bombers, in Australia, as well stockpiling of munitions.

Home basing threat
“Home basing would require the presence of nuclear weapons in Australia. This raises questions for article 5 of the Rarotonga Treaty which bans the stationing of nuclear weapons in the treaty zone.

“It would, therefore, require Australia to notify the Secretary-General of the PIFS under article 9 of the treaty.”

Dr Fry said Australia’s assurances that the nuclear reactors powering the submarines would not be in danger of accidently releasing radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean needed to be examined against the history of accidents involving nuclear submarines.

“There has already been a serious accident in the Pacific. In 2005, the US nuclear attack submarine USS San Francisco ran into a sea mount near the Caroline Islands in the Federated States of Micronesia.

“Although the nuclear reactor was undamaged, it was reported as ‘remarkable’ that it was not given the extensive damage to the submarine,” he said.

“Aside from the obvious nuclear concerns, the partnership is also widely noted to be an effort by the Australia-UK-US governments to counter the growing influence of China in the Pacific.

“It [AUKUS] also means Australia is even more fully integrated with US forces in a new cold war with China right now,” said Dr Fry.

Major policy shift
He added that “this is a major shift in policy from one where we pretended we were friends to both China and US”.

Penjueli said that several Pacific countries have had long diplomatic relations with China and the Asian superpower was not considered a problem.

“Our countries have taken much more nuanced policies with China. It is time that Australia is put on notice at the Forum. It is clearly part of our neighbourhood but it is acting outside of the norms of Pacific Islands Forum.”

She said that while AUKUS had taken the limelight, it was not the only cause for nuclear anxiety for the region.

The revelation by a Japanese utility company about plans to release nuclear waste from the Fukushima nuclear power plant — one of the world’s worst atomic disasters — into the Pacific Ocean had also set the alarm bells ringing.

“Japan is also a partner to the forum and the announcement has infuriated regional governments and activist groups,” Penjueli said.

“Our governments have opposed nuclear testing, they have opposed the movement of nuclear shipments of radioactive waste and they have strongly opposed the announcement by Japan to dump radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.

“The Pacific Ocean is not a dumping ground for nuclear materials, nor is it a highway for nuclear submarines.”

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