Leaders of AUKUS bloc – seen as a campaign by Western allies to rival China's growing power – report "significant progress" toward Canberra getting the much-touted nuclear sub.

Beijing has repeatedly railed against the submarine project that its calls a nuclear proliferation.
Beijing has repeatedly railed against the submarine project that its calls a nuclear proliferation. (Reuters Archive)

The leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have said in a statement marking the one-year anniversary of the AUKUS security bloc that they have made "significant progress" towards Australia acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine.

"We are steadfast in our commitment to Australia acquiring this capability at the earliest possible date," the statement said on Friday.

AUKUS is seen as a campaign by the Western allies to rival China's growing power and influence, particularly its military buildup, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the South China Sea.

The heart of the AUKUS agreement is a plan to provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines.

The AUKUS leaders –– US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese –– also said they had made "significant strides" in other areas, including hypersonic weapons, cyber, electronic warfare capabilities and additional undersea capabilities.

READ MORE: Australia to spend $10B on base for nuclear-powered submarines

China objects to plan, calling it proliferation

Beijing has repeatedly railed against the submarine project and last week it clashed with the AUKUS bloc at IAEA. 

Under the alliance announced last year Australia plans to acquire at least eight nuclear submarines that International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi has said will be fuelled by "very highly enriched uranium", suggesting it could be weapons-grade or close to it.

To date, no party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty other than the five countries the treaty recognises as weapons states –– the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France –– has nuclear submarines. The vessels can stay underwater for longer than conventional ones and are harder to detect.

"The AUKUS partnership involves the illegal transfer of nuclear weapon materials, making it essentially an act of nuclear proliferation," 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.

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 an atom bomb, and Australia does not have or want facilities that can 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 in this case because nuclear material will be transferred to Australia rather than being produced by it. It argues that the IAEA is overstepping its mandate and wants an unspecified "inter-governmental" process to examine the issue at the IAEA instead of leaving it to the agency.

In its seven-page position paper, China said AUKUS countries were seeking to take the IAEA "hostage" so it could "whitewash" nuclear proliferation.

READ MORE: US, UK, Australia to develop hypersonic missiles under AUKUS pact

Source: Reuters