Pacific Islands Forum chair ‘reassured’ over AUKUS nuclear submarine deal

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Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meets Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown in Washington
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meets Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown at the US Department of State in Washington last month. Image: RNZ Pacific/Ron Przysucha/US State Dept

RNZ Pacific

The Pacific Islands Forum chairman has been assured by the United States that the AUKUS agreement will honour the Treaty of Rarotonga after initially saying he felt it would go against it.

The Treaty of Rarotonga formalises a nuclear-weapon-free-zone in the South Pacific. It was signed by several Pacific nations, including Australia and New Zealand in 1985.

In a media statement, forum chairman and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said he was “reassured to receive from US counterparts last week assurances that AUKUS would uphold the Rarotonga Treaty”.

Brown initially raised concerns with the Cook Islands News about the agreement.

“The whole intention of the Treaty of Rarotonga was to try to de-escalate what were at the time Cold War tensions between the major superpowers. This AUKUS arrangement seems to be going against it,” Brown told the newspaper in March.

Cook Islands Prime Minister, Mark Brown.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown . . . previously not happy about how the AUKUS arrangement had already lead to an escalation in tension within the region. Image: RNZ Pacific/Sprep/Cook Islands Govt

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown. Photo: Sprep/Cook Islands Government

Brown told Cook Islands News at the time the situation “is what it is” but was not happy about how the arrangement had already lead to an escalation in tension within the region.

Last month, the leaders of the United States, the UK and Australia — Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Anthony Albanese respectively — formally announced the deal in San Diego.

It will see the Australian government spending nearly US$250 billion over the next three decades to acquire a fleet of US nuclear submarines with UK tech components — the majority of which will be built in Adelaide — as part of the defence and security pact.

Its implementation will make Australia one of only seven countries in the world to have nuclear-powered submarines alongside China, India, Russia, the UK, the US and France.

‘Assurance’ by Australia
New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta told RNZ Pacific she had been given “assurance” by Australia that the treaty would be upheld.

Mahuta said as members of the Pacific, there was an expectation that nations were briefed on bilateral decisions that impact the stability of the region.

“What I can say from a New Zealand perspective, is that we need to work hard together as a Pacific family to ensure greater stability and there is no militarisation of our region,” she said.

“We want to maintain a nuclear-free Pacific, we want to work with Pacific neighbours around any security related issues.”

Mahuta visited China last month and said the non-militarisation of the Pacific was discussed in her meetings along with other issues, like climate change.

Geopolitical analyst Geoffrey Miller said the AUKUS deal was probably “complaint by the letter of the law” but not “by the spirit”.

“It does set a bad precedent … if you want to get hold of nuclear technology in the future just get it in a submarine because that seems to be acceptable,” Miller said.

‘Submarine loophole’
“It has been called a submarine loophole.”

He said concerns have been expressed by outside experts, including China, but they should be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Vanuatu Minister, Ralph Regenvanu has called for Australia to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Regenvanu said in a tweet it was the “only way to assure us that the subs WON’T carry nuclear weapons” and it was a request from Vanuatu to sign.

The Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapon. The treaty entered into force in 2021.

However, when approached by RNZ Pacific, Regenvanu said he did not want to comment on his tweet and Australia’s Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy was visiting the Pacific nation later this week.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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