As China’s influence in the region rises, the United States, Britain, and Australia said on Wednesday that they will form an Indo-Pacific strategic alliance that will include assistance to Canberra in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.
The United States and Britain will give Australia with the technology and capabilities to deploy nuclear-powered submarines under the alliance announced by President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
In a three-way virtual announcement from each of their capitals, the leaders stressed Australia will not be fielding nuclear weapons but using nuclear propulsion systems for the vessels, to guard against future threats.
“We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” said Biden.
“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region, and how it may evolve because the future of each of our nations and indeed the world depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” he said.
Morrison said the submarines would be built in Adelaide in South Australia state, in close cooperation with the United States and Britain.
“We will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” he said.
Johnson called it a momentous decision for Australia to acquire the technology. He said it would make the world safer.
EYES ON CHINA
Washington and its allies are looking for ways to push back against China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military buildup, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the contested South China Sea.
The three leaders did not mention China and senior Biden administration officials who briefed reporters ahead of the announcement said the move was not aimed at countering Beijing.
China’s Washington embassy reacted, however, by saying that countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties.”
“In particular, they should shake off their Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice,” it said.
James Clapper a former director of U.S. national intelligence, told CNN it was a bold step by Australia given its economy’s dependence on China, adding: “Clearly the Chinese will view this as provocative.”
Republican Senator Ben Sasse said the agreement “sends a clear message of strength to Chairman Xi.”
“I’ll always applaud concrete steps to counter Beijing and this is one of them,” he said.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on a National Security Initiative virtually with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, inside the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
A U.S. official briefing before the announcement said Biden had not mentioned the plans “in any specific terms” to Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a call last Thursday, but did “underscore our determination to play a strong role in the Indo-Pacific.”
U.S. officials said nuclear propulsion would allow the Australian navy to operate more quietly, for longer periods, and provide deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.
The officials said the partnership, dubbed AUKUS, would also involve cooperation in areas including artificial intelligence and quantum technology.
The partnership ends Australia’s 2016 deal French shipbuilder Naval Group to build it a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines, a spokesperson for Morrison told Reuters.
The deal with France for 12 diesel submarines, then one of the world’s most lucrative defence deals, was beset by issues and delays due to Canberra’s requirement that the majority of the manufacturing and components be sourced locally.
Australia in June said it was undertaking “contingency planning” as its fleet of Collins-class submarines approach the end of its lifespan.
Biden stated that the nations would now begin an 18-month consultation period to “define every facet of this programme, from workforce, to training requirements, to production schedules,” as well as to assure full compliance with non-proliferation obligations.
The agreement should assist the US defence industry, with General Dynamics Corp (GD.N) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc among the companies that could profit (HII.N).
The Electric Boat unit of General Dynamics conducts the majority of the design work for US submarines, although crucial subsystems such as electronics and nuclear power plants are manufactured by BWX Technologies Inc. (BWXT.N)
Britain said the 18-month program would work out details as to what countries and companies would do what, with the aim for the first submarine to be delivered as quickly as possible.
U.S. officials did not give a time frame for when Australia would deploy a nuclear-powered submarine, or how many would be built. They said that since Australia does not have any nuclear infrastructure, it would require a sustained effort over years.
ONE-OFF TECHNOLOGY SWAP
One U.S. official said the announcement was the result of several months of engagements among respective military commands and political leaderships, during which Britain – which recently sent an aircraft carrier to Asia – had indicated it wanted to do more in the region.
“What we’ve heard in all those conversations is a desire for Great Britain to substantially step up its game in the Indo-Pacific,” the official said, noting its historical ties to Asia.
The U.S. official said Washington had shared nuclear propulsion technology only once before – with Britain in 1958 – and added: “This technology is extremely sensitive. This is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects, I do not anticipate that this will be undertaken in other circumstances going forward. We view this as a one-off.”
He described the move as part of a “bigger constellation of moves” in the area, including better bilateral partnerships with long-term allies Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, as well as deeper engagements with emerging partners like India and Vietnam.
The declaration comes just over a week before Biden hosts the first-ever in-person summit of leaders from the “Quad” group of countries – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – that Washington sees as a critical means of countering China.