Inside Story

AUKUS disrupts “a very peaceful part of planet Earth”

With anti-nuclear sentiment on the rise across the islands, the Morrison government’s nuclear submarine ambitions have undercut the prime minister’s claim to be part of the Pacific family

Nic Maclellan 14 October 2021 3439 words

Anti-nuclear forever: NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her Fijian counterpart Frank Bainimarama at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu. Nic Maclellan

“The sense of a regional identity, of being Pacific islanders, is felt most acutely” in the “movement toward a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific.” So wrote the late Epeli Hau‘ofa, one of the Pacific’s leading scholars, artists and philosophers, in his 1998 essay “The Ocean in Us.” The collective identity of Pacific islanders was reaffirmed, he argued, through struggles against nuclear testing, the dumping of nuclear waste, and other threats to the ocean environment:

The protests against the wall-of-death drift-netting, against plans to dispose of nuclear wastes in the ocean, the incineration of chemical weapons on Johnston Island, the 1995 resumption of nuclear tests on Moruroa, and, most ominously, the specter of our atoll islands and low-lying coastal regions disappearing under the rising sea level, are instances of a regional united front against threats to our environment.

Now we can add AUKUS to that list, and the new danger of nuclear proliferation in the Pacific.

Last month US president Joe Biden, British prime minister Boris Johnson and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced AUKUS, “an enhanced trilateral security partnership” between the three countries. They professed “a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.”

This strategic shift is much broader than the commitment to nuclear subs. The United States will deploy vessels, aircraft and US marines more often through Australia, and joint research efforts will focus on new frontiers, from the militarisation of space to “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.”

The brutal abandonment of the $90 billion submarine contract with France’s Naval Group, meanwhile, sent Australia’s strategic think tanks into overdrive, to analyse the implications for Indo-Pacific relationships. Amid the reams of commentary, however, little attention focused on the response to AUKUS in the Pacific islands.

Partly this reflects the initially measured response of most regional leaders, who refrained from directly criticising the new Anglosphere partnership. But any hope that Australia’s island neighbours will welcome further nuclearisation of the region is folly. Even as they face current security challenges — including the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic — island leaders are again talking about nuclear weapons, nuclear waste dumping and their desire for a nuclear-free and independent Pacific.

Scott Morrison likes to say that Australia has a vuvale relationship with its island neighbours. But vuvale, the Fijian word for “family,” carries deep cultural implications, involving bonds of reciprocity, respect and sharing. Respect towards island neighbours has been sorely lacking during climate negotiations, and regional anger over Canberra’s failed climate policy is likely to be exacerbated by the strategic shift under AUKUS.

Within days of the AUKUS announcement, a series of statements from Pacific leaders, community elders and media organisations highlighted the persistence of the deep antinuclear sentiment that Epeli Hau‘ofa identified as a central element of Pacific regionalism.

“Shame Australia, Shame,” tweeted the general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, Reverend James Bhagwan. “How can you call us your ‘vuvale’ when you know your ‘family’ stands for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific?”

Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare told the UN General Assembly that his nation “would like to keep our region nuclear-free and put the region’s nuclear legacy behind us… We do not support any form of militarisation in our region that could threaten regional and international peace and stability.”

Recalling British and US nuclear testing on Christmas Island, Kiribati president Taneti Maamau highlighted the trauma of i-Kiribati nuclear survivors: “With anything to do with nuclear, we thought it would be a courtesy to raise it, to discuss it with your neighbours… As small island states,” he added, “we thought we were part of the solution… we are in the Pacific family. We should be consulted.”

Newspapers like the Samoa Observer editorialised against Australia’s plans. “Signing up to a military pact behind the closet and then declaring we in the region will benefit from the peace and stability it would bring is not how friends treat each other,” declared Samoa’s leading newspaper.

In contrast to Canberra’s strategic shift, the New Zealand government quickly reaffirmed the longstanding, bipartisan legislation that has kept NZ ports free of nuclear visits since 1987. While avoiding any direct criticism of AUKUS and reiterating New Zealand’s commitment to ANZUS and the Five Eyes agreement, prime minister Jacinda Ardern pointedly reminded Australia that nuclear submarines are not welcome across the Tasman.

“Certainly they couldn’t come into our internal waters,” she said. “No vessels that are partially or fully powered by nuclear energy is able to enter our internal borders.”

Morrison claimed that under AUKUS “Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability.” These claims were immediately undercut when the Minerals Council of Australia and leading members of his own government called for a domestic nuclear industry to help develop the skills needed to maintain and operate a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. Others are concerned that the AUKUS partnership will rekindle Australian efforts in the 1960s to acquire nuclear weapons, a debate already under way in Australian strategic think tanks.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand has joined nine Forum Island Countries to sign and ratify the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or TPNW, which prohibits parties from “developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, acquiring, possessing, or stockpiling nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” As the Samoa Observer wrote, “It is a relief seeing Prime Minister Ardern continuing to maintain the tradition of her predecessors by promoting a nuclear-free Pacific; probably she is the only true friend of the Pacific Islands.”

For all of Scott Morrison’s talk of being a member of the “Pacific family,” he clearly doesn’t understand how many actual families were affected during the nuclear-testing era. The last of the more than 310 nuclear tests in the region was conducted twenty-five years ago, but outsiders often underestimate how deep the nuclear legacy is embedded in personal histories and oceanic culture.

Many past and present leaders have personal connections to the fifty years of cold war–era nuclear testing in Marshall Islands, Australia, Kiribati and French Polynesia. Former French Polynesian president Oscar Temaru worked on Moruroa Atoll as a customs officer, suffered family tragedy from the early death of a child and is a supporter of Moruroa e Tatou, the association of former Maohi workers who staffed the test sites during France’s 193 nuclear tests.

As a child in the 1950s, former Kiribati president Anote Tong lived on Fanning Island, close to Christmas Island where the British government conducted hydrogen bomb tests, dubbed Operation Grapple, in 1957–58.

Fiji was a British colony at this time, sending members of the Fiji Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve to support Britain’s H-bomb tests on Malden Island. The first contingent of Fijian sailors in 1957 was led by Ratu Inoke Bainimarama. Today, his son Josaia — known as Frank — is prime minister of Fiji. As a former rear-admiral and commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, the younger Bainimarama is an unlikely champion for nuclear disarmament. But the Fijian politician — who led the military coup in 2006 and now serves as chair of the Pacific Islands Forum — has long stood by Fijian nuclear veterans.

“My father was among those soldiers,” Bainimarama tweeted a fortnight after the AUKUS announcement. “The nature of their mission was not totally clear to any of them until the bombs were going off. To honour the sacrifice of all those who have suffered due to these weapons, Fiji will never stop working towards a global nuclear ban.”

The timing of the AUKUS announcement added complications for the British government, which will host the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow next month. Many leaders from the Small Island Developing States group watched in dismay as France and the AUKUS partners squabbled over arms contracts at a time when development and climate funding is desperately needed. As Bainimarama tartly noted, “If we can spend trillions on missiles, drones, and nuclear submarines, we can fund climate action.”

Even as he challenges the AUKUS partners to make more ambitious COP26 climate commitments, the Fijian PM has spent recent weeks speaking out about nuclear proliferation and the health and environmental legacies of nuclear testing. At the UN General Assembly he stressed that “the commitment of the Pacific Island nations to the elimination of nuclear weapons is not based on an abstraction. It is based on real experience with the consequences of nuclear fallout, and it is at the root of our sense of urgency.”

Announcing the AUKUS deal, Scott Morrison recklessly described the renewed ties to Britain and the United States as a “forever partnership” (no doubt raising eyebrows in Paris, after the Australia–France strategic partnership and a multibillion-dollar contract was sunk overnight by Anglo-American perfidy).

The range of issues contemplated under the AUKUS banner — from transfer of nuclear technology to cyberwarfare cooperation and logistics, transit and basing rights for American forces in Australia — highlights the potential for Australia to be even further integrated into US nuclear war–fighting strategies. Previous Coalition language about the need to “balance” economic ties with the People’s Republic of China and strategic ties with the United States has been abandoned.

Most of Australia’s Pacific island neighbours haven’t abandoned this balancing act, however. At a time of increasing US–Chinese strategic competition, many are wary of being forced into a choice between Washington and Beijing.

Like New Zealand, Vanuatu has declared its land and waters nuclear-free, and like Fiji it is a member of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement. Other states like Papua New Guinea explicitly base their foreign policy on the objective “friends to all and enemies to none.”

Although PNG prime minister James Marape didn’t directly criticise the AUKUS announcement, he did tell ABC correspondent Natalie Whiting that “we will make sure our sovereignty is not influenced by what happens in Australia and elsewhere. [O]ur waters and our sovereignty will be protected by our own specific bilaterals we have with all nations.”

This tension is evident even among some of the United States’ closest allies in the northern Pacific. Although they are contemplating withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum, the five members of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit continue to manoeuvre around longstanding China–Taiwan disputes in the Pacific. Nauru, Palau and Marshall Islands have diplomatic relations with Taipei; Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM, recognise Beijing. All, however, are wary of a neat “for and against” logic, despite criticism by Taiwan-aligned leaders like Nauru president Lionel Aingimea and Palau’s Surangel Whipps Jr of Chinese human rights violations and China’s strategic advance.

Even as FSM extends its historical connection with Washington, president David Panuelo continues to support ongoing diplomatic ties with Beijing. In his address to the UN General Assembly in September, Panuelo said that FSM needed support from “all friends, allies and development partners in the global community.”

Micronesia is “family to the United States and a friend to the People’s Republic of China,” he went on, “just as Micronesia is a friend to the Maldives and to the United Kingdom, to the Netherlands and to Spain, to Nicaragua and to Australia, to New Zealand and to South Africa, to Israel and to Norway, to Japan and to Korea.” Friends to all, enemies to none.

In a new book on FSM’s foreign policy, Micronesian scholar Gonzaga Puas says his country “is learning from other Pacific Island nations to better position itself in regard to relations with China without offending the US.” Puas says that island nations like FSM have long dealt successfully with the outside world by drawing on internal social stability and mutual support rather than succumbing to different waves of colonisation. The vast think tank literature on Chinese influence in the Pacific islands often underestimates this skill.

Even so, the three Freely Associated States can’t avoid current regional tensions. FSM, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of Marshall Islands are renegotiating Compacts of Free Association with Washington by 2023, agreements that give the US Indo-Pacific Command strategic denial against third parties. As the United States mobilises against China in the region, US officials are discussing possible military-basing rights with Palau and FSM, as well as new deployments in the US territory of Guahan (Guam), which already hosts major US naval and air force bases.

The AUKUS partners seek the status of “security partner of choice” for island nations. But if they try to force “forever partnerships” on members of the Pacific Islands Forum, the pushback will be significant. As PNG’s James Marape said after the AUKUS announcement, “We have a very peaceful part of planet Earth, we want to protect that peace and serenity… In as far as securing peace is concerned, we’ve got no problem, but if such activities bring disharmony in the region, then we have an issue.”

Nuclear testing has played a major if unintended role in shaping the region’s political development over the past half-century. As Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Henry Puna reminded participants in a recent Forum webinar to commemorate the UN International Day on Nuclear Tests, “nuclear testing was a key political driver for the establishment of our Pacific Islands Forum fifty years ago.”

For the former Cook Islands prime minister, the signing of the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, or SPNFZ, was a seminal moment for Pacific regionalism: “Despite thirty-six years of the Treaty of Rarotonga, and twenty-five years since the permanent cessation of nuclear testing in our region, the nuclear threat remains, exacerbated by the permanent, intergenerational consequences and impacts of nuclear weapons.”

Other veteran diplomats echo the importance of SPNFZ, which was developed in the midst of 1980s US–Soviet nuclear tensions. Samoa’s current high commissioner to Fiji, Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, was a member of Samoa’s delegation at the August 1984 Forum meeting in Tuvalu that appointed the working group of officials to prepared the draft text of a Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. As I reported for Inside Story in 2013, declassified cabinet papers and leaked US diplomatic cables reveal the extent of the US–Australia collaboration at that time, to push back against island governments seeking to ban missile tests and visits or transit by nuclear-powered vessels.

Unlike China, Russia, Britain and France, the United States is the only major nuclear weapons state that still refuses to ratify the protocols of the SPNFZ treaty. Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia stresses that the next step is clear: “We don’t need to look far. The three Protocols of our own Rarotonga Treaty have yet to be ratified by the United States, despite some positive indications made earlier.”

Recent regional efforts have aimed to strengthen SPNFZ and other treaties. New Zealand and Vanuatu co-hosted a conference in December 2018, issuing the Auckland Statement on TPNW to encourage more island countries to sign and ratify the nuclear ban treaty. This push was echoed by the Fijian prime minister at last month’s General Assembly meeting, when Bainimarama urged “all Member States to join and ratify the new TPNW, to free the world of nuclear weapons.”

Signatories to the Rarotonga Treaty held their first-ever meeting of states parties in December last year, more than thirty-five years after the treaty was signed. The Forum has created a Nuclear Legacies Task Force to assist nuclear survivors in Marshall Islands and Kiribati. Since his election last February, secretary-general Puna has reached out to OPANAL — the Latin American secretariat that manages the 1967 Tlatelolco nuclear-weapon-free zone. In a speech to OPANAL on 1 October, Puna offered to host “a meeting of nuclear-weapon-free zones in the Blue Pacific” in 2022, bringing together governments that have created zones across the whole land area of the southern hemisphere.

Australian diplomats, by contrast, regard US extended nuclear deterrence as a central feature of Australian defence policy. They have campaigned against the TPNW and ensured that British nuclear testing at Monte Bello, Maralinga and Emu Field is not on the agenda of the regional Nuclear Legacies Task Force. Meanwhile, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced three major changes to Britain’s nuclear posture: to increase the upper limit on its nuclear warhead stockpile by 44 per cent, reduce transparency about the makeup of the arsenal and extend the strategic circumstances in which British nuclear weapons might be used. The United States continues to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, even as the number of nuclear warheads shrinks.

Scott Morrison now wants to go further. If they are ever built and crewed in coming decades (no small problem), the proposed AUKUS nuclear submarines will integrate the Royal Australian Navy more deeply into US nuclear war–fighting strategies, through potential missions such as undersea intelligence collection within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Rarotonga Treaty also bans the dumping of radioactive nuclear waste in the SPNFZ zone, as well as assisting or encouraging any nation to dump waste in the region. For Henry Puna, the treaty “distinctly ensures that we are a nuclear-free zone, and not just a nuclear-weapon-free zone… the intentional omission of ‘weapon’ from the title of our treaty reflects the desire of states parties to engage on the issue of nuclear non-proliferation in a holistic fashion.”

For this reason, the proposed ocean dumping of contaminated waste water from the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactor is a major diplomatic setback for Japan in the islands. In recent years, Japan has joined other “Quad” members — Australia, India and the United States — to coordinate pushback against Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. But the Japanese government angered Pacific communities last April by announcing plans to discharge more than 1.2 million tonnes of treated radioactive waste water into the Pacific, starting in 2023. The unilateral proposal breaches previous commitments to consult with island leaders before any dumping is undertaken.

“Japan’s announcement to discharge treated water into the Pacific Ocean has sounded the alarm bells again,” says Samoa’s Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia. “We need independent and verifiable scientific assessment that this method of discharge is indeed safe-proof.” The final communiqué of the ninth Pacific Area Leaders Meeting, in July, highlighted “the priority of ensuring international consultation, international law, and independent and verifiable scientific assessments.” As Henry Puna said, “Only the disclosure of information based on science will satisfy and appease the members.”

The links between climate change, nuclear contaminants and human rights for indigenous peoples are highlighted by the energetic diplomacy of the Republic of Marshall Islands. Marshallese diplomats are active on many fronts: championing the successful effort at the UN Human Rights Council to create a special rapporteur on climate change and human rights; lobbying at the International Maritime Organization for climate levies on bunker fuel; and raising the call at COP26 for “1.5 to stay alive” through the Climate Vulnerable Forum and Higher Ambition Coalition. The Marshall Islands government has created a National Nuclear Commission to coordinate effective responses to the legacies of sixty-seven US nuclear tests in their lands and waters.

Successive Marshall Islands leaders have highlighted the connection between nuclear and climate threats. The poem “Anointed” by Marshallese writer and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner captures local concern that rising sea levels will leach radioactive isotopes into the marine environment from the Runit Dome on Enewetak Atoll — a relic of twentieth-century nuclear testing. Today, Jetnil-Kijiner is a climate envoy for her nation, contributing to a National Adaptation Plan that uniquely links climate and nuclear concerns. “It’s going to be one of the few National Adaptation Plans that takes into consideration the nuclear legacy,” she says, “and how the nuclear legacy can inform how we plan for climate change action.”

Marshall Islands president David Kabua has called on UN agencies to assist in dealing with these legacies within the UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework. Kabua sees UN action as a small recompense for the betrayal of Micronesian rights when his nation was under UN Trusteeship after the second world war, “where — despite our warnings at the time — two Trusteeship Council resolutions remain the only instance in history where any UN organ ever specifically authorised nuclear detonations.” The legacy of these tests, he said, “remains a very contemporary threat, in our waters, our lands and our bodies.”

As Australians debate the costs and consequences of acquiring AUKUS nuclear submarines, David Kabua’s words ring out: “We tirelessly underscore that no people or nation should ever have to bear a burden such as ours, and that no effort should be spared to move towards a world free of nuclear weapons and nuclear risk.” •

Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund.