Submarine and Nuclear Proliferation in Western Pacific Presents New Challenges for ASEAN

The security dynamics in the western Pacific have taken a new and potentially dangerous turn with long term consequences for the strategic stability in the western Pacific region and ASEAN Member States. This is a byproduct of at least two recent developments involving back to back missile tests by North Korea and South Korea, and a new trilateral defense technology-sharing pact involving Australia, the UK and the US.

First, Republic of Korea successfully conducted the test firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from a 3,000 ton submarine fitted with six vertical launch tubes. It now joins the list of seven countries (China, France, India, North Korea, Russia, the UK and the US) that possess capability to launch such missiles. Code-named Hyunmoo 4-4, the Korean SLBM is a variant of the Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile with a range of up to 500 kilometers and can target any location in North Korea. The missile will be subjected to more tests in coming times before being deployed on the Dosan submarine.

President Moon Jae-in had witnessed the test firing of the missile and has stated that the missile test was “self-defensive in nature” and would serve “a sure deterrence against North Korean provocation” This was in response to North Korea’s short range cruise missile test, the fourth in the series in 2021 after a year-long hiatus. In the past, in 2016, North Korea had test-fired an SLBM but is it not known if the launch was conducted from its submarine.

The Japanese reactions to North Korea missile tests is not surprising; Prime Minister Suga condemned the missile launch, called it “simply outrageous” and “threat to the peace and security” of the region…furthermore, “North Korean missile tests violated U.N. Security Council resolutions banning North Korea wherein Pyongyang has been banned from testing ballistic missile and nuclear technology”. Suga also stated that Japan would “work closely with the U.S., South Korea, and other concerned nations to resolutely protect the lives of our citizens and their peaceful lives,” He also called his counterparts in Australia and Vietnam and Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc assured him full cooperation in this regard. Interestingly, Prime Minister Suga did not make remarks on the new South Korean SLBM capability.

Second, President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have announced the ‘AUKUS’ under which Australia will receive technical support to achieve its ambition of acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine. Under the circumstances, Australia has decided to shelve the AUS$90 billion (roughly $66 billion) building programme of 12 conventional submarines with conventional propulsion by the French shipbuilder Naval Group.  

It merits attention that after the U.S.-U.K. Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958, Australia is the second alliance partner country with whom U.S. has shared its nuclear propulsion technology. This 18-month program is aimed at “determining how to best meet Australia’s demand for nuclear-powered submarines”. A Biden administration official has observed that it would “decisively bind” Australia to the US and the UK, and should be seen as “a large effort to sustain the fabric of deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.”… It will result in “deeper interoperability along our navies and our nuclear infrastructure,” The Agreement will also “spur cooperation across many new and emerging arenas: cyber AI, particularly applied AI, quantum technologies, and some undersea capabilities as well” including “dedicated effort to pursue the integration of security and defense-related science technology and industrial bases and supply chains.”

The AUKUS dovetails into the ongoing military ‘push back’ against China led by the Quad involving Australia, Japan, India, and US, and they are now joined by the UK and France. However, the French are disappointed with Australia over the cancellation of the ocean-class submarine building programme that started in 2016 after a stiff competition from German and Japanese bids. The French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian has not minced words “We had established a relationship of trust with Australia. This trust is betrayed," the contract is a "blow in the back." Paris has now decided to immediately recall its ambassadors from Washington and London for consultations and response.

However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indicated that France was taken into confidence over the initiative and has assured that European countries have an important role in the Indo-Pacific and looks forward to “continued close cooperation with NATO, with the EU and others in this endeavor.”

China is riled over the AUKUS and the foreign ministry spokesperson has cautioned that it “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts”. He also accused Australia of undermining the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga) and not fulfilling its non-proliferation commitments. It has also been observed that Iran could potentially explore a loophole in the NPT and “take its HEU for a power plant on a vessel like a submarine, and therefore it is legally exempt from IAEA inspections”.

Meanwhile the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has revealed that the three countries had informed it and will “engage with them on this matter in line with its statutory mandate, and in accordance with their respective safeguards agreements with the agency,” Apparently, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke to Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and likewise, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter had appraised their counterparts of AUKUS.

The above developments are significant for the ASEAN Member States. Indonesia, and Malaysia are concerned over the AUKUS and Singapore appears to be taking a neutral stand. They can be expected to witness heightened naval activity in the South China Sea by nuclear capable platforms of Australia, China, India, US, France and UK. The improvisation by RoK Navy to host cruise/ballistic missile on its conventional submarines will potentially trigger Japan to pursue a similar path, and this too will present a newer challenges for Southeast Asian countries. The proliferation of submarines among ASEAN Member States themselves constitutes a critical dimension of Southeast Asian regional security and strategic stability. Besides the risk of accidents (sinking of Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala-402) is a major concern.

The Chairman Statement at the 36th ASEAN Summit hosted by Vietnam makes specific mention of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty and calls for “importance of the full and effective implementation of the SEANWFZ Treaty, including under the Plan of Action to Strengthen the Implementation of the SEANWFZ Treaty (2018-2022)” under which the Member States are committed to promoting ASEAN’s common position on issues related to non-proliferation and disarmament among others. Therefore, issues concerning proliferation of conventional submarines with advanced missile capabilities in the western Pacific and the AUKUS should trigger a debate among the ASEAN Member States to have a deeper look into the contents of the existing 2018-2022 Plan of Action as they prepare for the subsequent action plans.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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