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Living with AUKUS in the nuclear-free Pacific

THESE ISLANDS By Robert Underwood

The recent Australia United Kingdom United States (AUKUS)

agreement on nuclear submarines has much of the world scratching their heads. It was a poorly executed decision to end a deal between Australia and France over the purchase of diesel submarines. Australia is now buying American instead and nuclear to boot.

There may not be long-term circumstances from the awkwardly worded and imperfectly implemented AUKUS agreement. People can forgive and forget if they find ways to compensate for a failed deal and recognize French sensibilities. France has already re-recalled their ambassadors from Australia and the United States. Discussions about centuries-old alliances will be used to paper over real differences.

It is unclear what this means for the island Pacific if anything. We can just wait for the next extra-regional move and then figure out how to react in predictable and safe ways. It goes without saying that no one in the island Pacific was consulted or given advance notice.

The Federated States of Micronesia expressed support, but it was obvious they had no advance notice. It was a rude reminder about your place in strategic planning even when it is ostensibly occurring in your own backyard.

Most Pacific island governments have been relatively quiet. Expressing outrage about climate change and the precarious nature of island existence seems much easier and less thorny than getting between China and the United States.

The Samoa Observer criticized Australia for becoming a party to a pact that could see conflict return to our “peaceful islands” 76 years after the end of WWII. It was an interesting comment from a publication located in a country that saw no hostilities during that conflict.

The Solomon Islands or the Marshall Islands, which experienced a nuclear testing holocaust on their atolls, have more standing to venture a strong opinion. But they haven’t.

Japan and the Philippines have expressed support for the AUKUS. Malaysia and Indonesia are worried about a new arms race. Are they not noticing what is going on around them? Who is flexing their muscles or at least altering the power equation in the South China Sea?

Australian PM Scott Morrison described AUKUS as the most important development for Australia’s security since the Australia-New Zealand-United States Security Treaty or ANZUS.

Well, something had to replace ANZUS. The NZ reshaped ANZUS in 1986 when it was suspended for initiating a nuclear-free zone in their territorial waters.

New Zealand (perhaps soon to be Aotearoa) has since been a kind of participant-observer in Western alliances. They are part of the Five Eyes Intelligence network. This includes the U.S., Canada, UK, Australia and NZ.

But New Zealand will still not allow anything nuclear to enter its waters. This has kept U.S. Navy vessels out of the area except for ceremonial visits. These visits have to be preceded by advance guarantees that nothing nuclear is driving or arming the ship. It draws into clearer focus the meaning of being nuclear-free.

In 1985, the Treaty of Rarotonga was signed which created a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific. It was signed by Australia and 11 other South Pacific countries.

The U.S., U.K. and France also signed onto it. Even Russia and China signed onto it with some reservations. It represented the high-water mark of the old Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement. The activists eventually convinced the nations of the South Pacific (or got elected to office themselves) and ushered in the nuclear-free South Pacific.

This has lasted nearly four decades with some accommodations. New Zealand’s ban on nuclear-anything remains intact although they continue to be a member of international alliances. Palau has its strong referendum-required provision (75 percent approval) in order to put anything nuclear in the country or its waters.

Rarotonga has all of Polynesia as part of the nuclear-free zone except for Hawaii, American Samoa and the Polynesian outliers, which are part of the FSM.

The French territories in Polynesia and Melanesia are part of it. In Micronesia, only Nauru and Kiribati are included. The territories of Guam and the CNMI are not included by the United States, which speaks on its own behalf.

The three freely associated states are not included although they could be. I guess they would have to jump a few American hurdles to get there if they are so inclined. I doubt the motivation is there.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue concluded recently. The QUAD meetings among the prime ministers of India (Narendra Damodardas Modi), Australia (Scott Morrison), Japan (Yoshihide Suga) and U.S. President Biden represent a new serious approach to China in the Indo-Pacific.

The Washington D.C. meeting supported freedom of movement in the Indo-Pacific and promised to be “undaunted by coercion.” There was no mention of China in the two-hour session, nor of AUKUS.

It is time for the island Pacific to take a serious look as what this portends for their own future freedom of movement. Increased assistance from both sides may look enticing.

But what are the enduring values of being in the Blue Continent if anything but pacific? The Pacific Ocean?

Where will those values be articulated and how will they be expressed? The Pacific Forum is split along many lines. The Pacific Way faces many new challenges. Nuclear-free may well be redefined to accommodate the new realities again.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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