Dealing with nuclear-powered submarines in South-East Asian waters

Dealing with nuclear-powered submarines in South-East Asian waters | The Star

SOUTH-EAST Asia is home to some of the world’s most crucial sea lines of communications. Besides the world-renowned Straits of Malacca and Singapore, the region also hosts other important maritime routes through the Indonesian archipelagic waters. Among them are the Sunda Strait route, the Lombok-Makassar route and the Ombai-Wetar route.

The closure of these important shipping ways would not only violate international law but would also affect the well-being of the global economy.

Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed uneasiness that the tripartite security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (Aukus), which was announced in September 2021, would enable Australia to construct at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Through Aukus, Australia is projected to possess its first nuclear-powered submarine by 2040.

International law has placed the obligation on Malaysia and Indonesia to allow their territorial seas within the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, as well as waters within Indonesian archipelagic sea lanes, to be open for international navigation, including that of nuclear-powered vessels and submarines.

Apart from being critical maritime conduits that facilitate the global shipping industry, South-East Asian sea lines of communications are also crucial for the mobility of military vessels, including nuclear-powered submarines travelling from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans via the South China Sea. These crucial maritime routes have, for years, been traversed by nuclear-powered submarines flying Chinese, American and Indian flags, among others.

Since the emergence of the first nuclear-powered submarine back in 1955 (the USS Nautilus), there have been nine incidents worldwide of nuclear submarines sinking, either by accident or scuttling. These sunken vessels may pose threats to the marine environment by leaking radiation into the sea.

The European Commission said in 2013 that leakage of radioactive material from the wreck of the nuclear submarine of K-159 in the Barents Sea could increase levels of radioactivity in local populations of cod by 100 times. Nevertheless, this contamination remains well below the “safe standards” set by the Norwegian government.

In 2021, Japan announced plans to release radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant (which was damaged in the 2011 tsunami) into the Pacific Ocean. According to a German marine scientific research institute, once radioactive water is dumped into waters off the coast of Fukushima, strong currents would disseminate radioactive materials to most parts of the Pacific Ocean within 57 days of discharge and would reach all oceans of the world within a decade.

This would bring about adverse implications in various aspects, including global fish migration, pelagic fisheries, human health and ecological security.

In addition, the plan to construct nuclear-powered submarines in South Australia has alarmed both anti-war and environmental campaigners, who contend that such vessels have a “long history” of involvement in accidents all across the oceans of the world. The recent incident involving the American nuclear-powered submarine USS Connecticut that ran into an undersea mountain in the South China Sea has raised concerns of a potential maritime accident or, worse, a nuclear meltdown in our oceans.

Consequently, it remains clear that special protective measures should be legally engaged by both coastal states and user states in situations involving vessels carrying hazardous nuclear substances.

International law dictates that straits used for international navigation and archipelagic sea lanes are subject to the application of the unimpeded right of transit passage and the unobstructed right of archipelagic sea lanes passage respectively. Closing straits or archipelagic sea lanes to vessels carrying hazardous nuclear substances would, one way or another, violate the spirit of the Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (LOSC). However, it could also be argued that the LOSC places an obligation on each member state to protect and preserve its marine environment.

Put it this way: Owners of houses located next to a busy road in the city centre have no right to impede the movement of vehicles on the road. However, if the road is used by huge trucks, lorries or tractors that eventually damage it and affect the surrounding neighbourhood, special initiatives should be implemented to ensure the comfort and safety of residents are not compromised.

This analogy applies mutatis mutandis to the passage of vessels carrying hazardous substances through the busy South-East Asian sea lines of communications.

We must remember that the LOSC was drafted back in the 1970s when there were not as many nuclear-powered submarines around as today. Nevertheless, the preamble of the LOSC clearly promotes “peaceful uses of the seas and oceans” and “preservation of the marine environment”. Hence, navigation of vessels carrying hazardous substances, like nuclear-powered submarines, should be subject to stricter requirements to further protect the interests of the coastal states concerned. This is something that the world community, specifically South-East Asian nations, should strongly consider working on.

Time to buckle up.

ASSOC PROF DR MOHD HAZMI MOHD RUSDI

Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM)

The letter writer is a senior lecturer at Usim’s Faculty of Syariah and Law and a research fellow at the Malaysia Institute at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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