The United States, Britain and Australia said on Wednesday they would establish a security partnership for the INDO PACIFIC that will involve helping Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines, as Chinese influence over the region grows.
Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared together virtually to detail the new alliance, which will be called AUKUS (pronounced AWK-us). The three announced they would quickly turn their attention to developing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.
“We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” said Biden, who said the new alliance reflects a broader trend of key European partners playing a role in the Indo-Pacific. “We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve.”
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
The new security alliance is likely to be seen as a provocative move by China, which has repeatedly lashed out at Biden as he’s sought to refocus US foreign policy on the Pacific in the early going of his presidency.
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 announcement comes just over a week before Biden is to host a first in-person meeting of leaders of the “Quad” group of countries – Australia, India, Japan and the United States – that Washington sees as a key means to stand up to China.
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 US national intelligence, said 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.
A US 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.”
US officials said nuclear propulsion would allow the Australian navy to operate more quietly, for longer periods, and provide deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.
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, Australian media reported, a spokesperson for Morrison told Reuters.
The deal, 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 a result.
Biden said the governments would now launch an 18-month consultation period, “to determine every element of this program, from workforce, to training requirements, to production timelines” and to ensure full compliance with non-proliferation commitments.
The pact should be a boon for the US defense industry and among the firms that could benefit are General Dynamics Corp and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.
General Dynamics’ Electric Boat business does much of the design work for US submarines, but critical subsystems such as electronics and nuclear power plants are made by BWX Technologies Inc
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.
US 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.
The evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region in the wake of China’s increasing military muscle-flexing has become a major talking point among leading global powers. The US has been favouring making Quad a security architecture to check China’s growing assertiveness.
In November 2017, India, Japan, the US and Australia gave shape to the long-pending proposal of setting up the Quad to develop a new strategy to keep the critical sea routes in the Indo-Pacific free of any influence.
Beijing claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory. China has been building military bases on artificial islands in the region also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China has built up and militarised many of the islands and reefs it controls in the region. Both maritime areas in the South and East China seas are stated to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources and are also vital to global trade.