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New Delhi: India, Brazil and other countries lobbied against a Chinese-sponsored draft resolution in the UN’s atomic energy watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would have put a roadblock on the planned supply of nuclear submarines to Australia.
In September 2021, the US, the UK and Australia announced the formation of the AUKUS alliance to allow Canberra to acquire at least eight nuclear submarines. With Washington drawing up the proposal explicitly to counter China in Asia, Beijing has been highly critical of the plan to equip Australia with nuclear submarines fuelled with highly-enriched uranium.
Though Brazil is working with France on developing nuclear submarines too and has been in talks with the IAEA over safeguards and procedures, this would be the first time a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, besides the five recognised nuclear weapon states, would possess and operate nuclear submarines. India has acquired two nuclear submarines but has never been party to NPT on the grounds that it is discriminatory.
While the NPT bans non-nuclear weapon states from possessing nuclear weapons, nuclear propulsion for conventionally armed submarines is not proscribed.
Since last year, the AUKUS initiative has been a stand-alone item on the agenda of the quarterly meetings of IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors.
At the last meeting of the Board of Governors earlier this month, China clashed with the AUKUS alliance.
The IAEA had also issued a report that it was “satisfied” with the cooperation from the US, Australia and the UK in monitoring the nuclear material. China lashed out against the report, claiming that the IAEA director general “cannot be reduced to a political tool of the three countries and be used to make misleading conclusions”.
At the IAEA’s annual General Conference that began on September 26, China had ramped up its efforts to prevent AUKUS from going forward by circulating a draft resolution. By calling for more oversight, China hoped to either stop Australia from getting the nuclear submarines or, at least, make the process more difficult.
On September 28, China’s state-run tabloid Global Times reported that the nuclear submarine deal would be officially reviewed at the General Conference after “IAEA members expressed great concern over the potential danger of nuclear proliferation”. The information was attributed to China’s permanent mission to the UN in Vienna.
However, there were no other reports that confirmed the Global Times article.
Instead, on the last day of the General Conference, China seems to have withdrawn its draft resolution.
Brazilian officials told The Wire that the Chinese move, though aimed at Australia, would have gone against Brazil’s plans to develop nuclear-powered submarines as well. “If China had succeeded, it would have been a disaster for us”, one official said.
Brazil also saw the Chinese move as an attempt to weaken the position of IAEA director general Rafael Grossi, an Argentine whom Brasilia holds in high regard.
Incidentally, China’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Wang Qun, had been leading the Chinese delegation to the 2016 plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Seoul. Unlike other Chinese diplomats, he had been public before the media on the process behind closed doors about the “lack of consensus” that scuttled India’s application to be an NSG member.
Indian diplomatic sources said the Indian delegation to the IAEA had also been active in persuading several countries to oppose the draft resolution.
“India took an objective view of the initiative, recognising the soundness of the technical evaluation by IAEA. The Indian Mission to the IAEA in Vienna worked closely with many IAEA member states in this regard,” stated the source.
After the AUKUS alliance had been unveiled last year, India had seemed sanguine about any concerns about the proliferation of nuclear technology. “…I saw that the Australians have clarified that they are working on a nuclear-propelled submarine, that means propulsion is based on nuclear technology, but it would not have any nuclear weapons and as such will not be in contravention with any of Australia’s or international commitments with regard to the issue of nuclear proliferation,” India’s then foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said on September 21, 2021.
When China realised that it would not be able to garner a majority, the draft resolution was withdrawn, said Indian sources.
Incidentally, Indian officials claimed that New Delhi’s proactive approach in Vienna was especially appreciated by the US, UK and Australia.
On the same day as India was working with the West to thwart the Chinese move on AUKUS in the IAEA, India abstained on a US-sponsored draft resolution against the annexation of Ukrainian territories by Russia in another UN body, the powerful Security Council.
Note: This story was edited after publication to add inputs received from Brazilian officials.