In September 2021, the UK, Australian and the United States governments issued a joint statement announcing the creation of a new trilateral security partnership. The partnership is referred to as AUKUS. The stated aim of the partnership is to deepen diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

The joint statement said the first initiative of this new partnership would be to support Australia in the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. It also said the AUKUS countries would seek to cooperate on other matters in the future, including cyber security and artificial intelligence.

Reaction to creation of AUKUS

The creation of AUKUS has been received positively by some countries in the Indo-Pacific region. For example, Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister, said during a call with his Australian counterpart that his government welcomed the partnership’s creation. The Philippines government has also said it believed the new partnership would help the Royal Australian Navy to restore the balance of power in the region.

China has criticised the establishment of AUKUS, arguing it would undermine peace and stability by creating an arms race in the region. The Indian government has not commented directly on the establishment of AUKUS. However, it has said AUKUS was less important to India than the existing Quad agreement between India, Australia and other countries in the region.

The French government has criticised the United States, Australia and the UK, arguing the agreement to develop nuclear powered submarines constituted a “stab in the back”. The agreement has resulted in the loss of a contract by French company, Naval Group, to build 12 conventional-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. Following the announcement, France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France did not withdraw its ambassador to London. However, France’s defence minister, Florence Parly, cancelled a planned meeting with the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, scheduled to take place in September 2021.

Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement

In November 2021, the three AUKUS countries signed the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information Agreement (ENNPIA) in Canberra. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said this agreement would help Australia to develop nuclear powered submarines, ensuring the Royal Australian Navy would be able to safeguard the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific.

The UK Government’s explanatory memorandum to the agreement states the purpose of the ENNPIA is to provide for the exchange of information on naval nuclear propulsion, which is necessary to enable the “scoping phase” of the AUKUS submarine programme to proceed. The explanatory memorandum states the programme’s scoping phase is expected to last for 18 months. Currently, the United States is restricted from sharing naval nuclear propulsion information with other countries unless an appropriate agreement is in place. The US-UK Agreement for Cooperation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes 1958, as amended, also prohibits the United States and the UK from sharing restricted naval nuclear propulsion information unless specifically authorised.

What are the requirements under the agreement?

The ENNPIA will come into force as soon as all three partner countries have completed their respective internal procedures for ratifying international agreements. Article X states the agreement will stay in force until 31 December 2023. After this, the agreement will be automatically extended four times, once each six months. This extension process will take place unless another agreement supersedes it or the parties leave.

The ENNPIA does not provide for the transfer of naval nuclear propulsion equipment. The explanatory memorandum states that this will be provided for in a subsequent follow-on agreement.

The explanatory memorandum states the exchange of information under the agreement will not contravene the partner countries obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Article IV of the ENNPIA states that one of the conditions that will apply to information shared under the agreement will be the application of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The explanatory memorandum adds the ENNPIA does not include an express mechanism for making amendments to the agreement. However, the explanatory memorandum says that amendments could be made following an agreement by all the parties.

Parliamentary scrutiny

Treaties must be laid before Parliament 21 sitting days prior to their ratification. This is required under section 20 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The ENNPIA was laid before both the House of Commons and the House of Lords on 29 November 2021. The objection period for the treaty ends on 18 January 2022.

The House of Lords International Agreements Committee published a report on the ENNPIA on 13 January 2021. The report drew the agreement to the special attention of the House, stating it gave rise to issues of public policy that members might wish to debate prior to the agreement’s ratification.

The committee noted the explanatory memorandum said amendments could be made by the mutual agreement of the parties. It criticised the Government for not clarifying whether any such amendments to the ENNPIA might be subject to ratification under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. It also criticised the Government for not providing information on how any potential amendments to the ENNPIA might relate to any follow-on agreement.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, chair of the International Agreements Committee, has tabled a motion to take note of the agreement. This motion will be debated on 17 January 2022.

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This article was updated on 14 January 2022 following the publication of a report by the House of Lords International Agreements Committee.

Cover image UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021