Upon the establishment of their AUKUS alliance one year ago, the United Kingdom and the United States announced that they would transfer nuclear submarine technology to Australia.
The plan has met with fierce condemnation and opposition, not least from China which is generally viewed as being the target of the move, on the basis that it violates the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which the three countries are signatories to.
Under the plan, Australia will acquire at least eight nuclear submarines that IAEA chief Rafael Grossi has said will be fuelled by weapons-grade, or close to it, "very highly enriched uranium".
As China said in a position paper sent to IAEA member states during this week's quarterly meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors in Vienna, "The AUKUS partnership involves the illegal transfer of nuclear weapon materials, making it essentially an act of nuclear proliferation".
Since the position paper the Chinese side put forward questions both the legal basis for the AUKUS program and such issues as the interpretation of nuclear proliferation, the IAEA rules, and the mandate of the IAEA and its leadership, the issue has become a crucial test for the global nuclear watchdog. It needs to stay true to its mission of preserving peace via non-proliferation if it is to retain its authority.
"The IAEA, as a non-proliferation agency, would directly violate its own statute and the Non-Proliferation Treaty if it endorses the legality of the AUKUS countries' proliferation activities", as Wang Qun, Chinese permanent representative to the UN and other international organizations in Vienna, said.
Australia says it will be unable and unwilling to use the fuel in its submarines to make nuclear weapons since the vessels will have "welded power units" containing nuclear material that would need chemical processing for use in nuclear weapons, and it neither has nor wants the facilities to do that.
The AUKUS countries and the IAEA say the NPT allows so-called marine nuclear propulsion provided necessary arrangements are made with the IAEA.
China disagrees and says the AUKUS countries are seeking to take the IAEA "hostage" so they can "whitewash" their nuclear proliferation.
While the focus has been on the nuclear reactors that will power the submarines, it should also be noted that the vessels are to be based on the US navy's latest Virginia-class submarines, which can launch both cruise and ballistic nuclear missiles.
Looking at the AUKUS deal within the bigger picture, although the Joe Biden administration's nuclear posture review remains classified, which is in itself unusual, given the revamping of the US' nuclear posture under the Trump administration — which made nuclear weapon use more matter of fact than let's hope it never comes to that — along with the Pentagon's desire for naval bases in North Australia, it seems naive to conclude that it does not constitute nuclear proliferation in one form or another.