The United States and Britain will help Australia develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday, as leaders of the three countries announced a new trilateral security partnership focused on the Indo-Pacific region.
“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve,” Biden said, “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.”
The trio will be known by the acronym AUKUS.
Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressed that these nuclear-powered submarines would not carry nuclear weapons.
Not seeking nuclear weapons
“Let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” Morrison said, speaking virtually to the White House, along with his American and British counterparts. “And we will continue to meet all our nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters prior to the announcement set a timeline of 18 months for the three countries to work together to identify the optimal pathway for delivering the submarines.
Johnson said his country would play an important role in sharing knowledge with Australia, a former British colony that remains in the Commonwealth, an organization led by Queen Elizabeth II.
This agreement, he said, “will draw on the expertise that the U.K, has acquired over generations dating back to the launch of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear submarine over 60 years ago.”
The new partnership will allow the three countries to share information and expertise more easily in key technological areas such as artificial intelligence, cybertechnology, quantum technologies, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities.
“This initiative is about making sure that each of us has a modern capability, the most modern capabilities we need to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats,” Biden said.
FILE – This photo taken Jan. 2, 2017, shows a Chinese navy formation during military drills in the South China Sea.
Pushing back on China
Although none of the three leaders mentioned China in their remarks on Wednesday, analysts see this as another move by Western allies to push back on Beijing’s rise in the military and technology arenas.
“It’s already clear from the context that building for a high-intensity warfare environment — and that’s what a submarine does — there is really only one clear potential adversary in that equation,” said Euan Graham, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The deal, signed by countries that already share close ties, is a clear sign of Washington’s intention to remain a dominant and stabilizing power in the region.
“The U.S. effectively is willing to share almost everything it has,” said Julian Ku, a Hofstra University professor who focuses on international disputes and law. “It takes what’s already a very deep alliance to another level.”
The new fleet, which a Biden administration official described as having the characteristics of “stealth, speed, maneuverability, survivability,” will have a broader range and can stay below the surface for long periods.
“Tactically, this will give Canberra an operational means to sustain undersea combat power for much longer durations throughout the western Pacific when compared to Australia’s current diesel submarine,” said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on Asia-Pacific security policy.
China’s navy has a fleet of 60 submarines, which includes six nuclear-powered attack submarines.
Talks with French company
Until this announcement, Australia had been in talks with French company Naval Group to build as many as 12 French-designed nuclear submarines. That program was estimated to cost up to $70 billion.
Biden noted that this would be a multilateral effort, and that the trio welcomed help from longtime allies. “The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we go forward,” he said.