The US, UK and Australia are setting up a trilateral security partnership aimed at confronting China, which will include helping Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines.
The initiative, called Aukus, was announced jointly by US President Joe Biden, and Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, joined virtually by videoconference.
They presented it as the next critical step in an old alliance.
Morrison said that teams from the three countries would draw up a joint plan over the coming 18 months for assembling the new Australian nuclear-powered submarine fleet, which will be built in Adelaide.
Speaking from London, Johnson said that the three countries were “natural allies” even though “we may be separated geographically”.
China was not mentioned specifically during the announcement, but the United States and its allies have been looking for ways to push back against China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military build-up, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the contested South China Sea.
Yesterday China denounced a new Indo-Pacific security alliance, saying that such partnerships should not target third countries and warning of an intensified arms race in the region.
Senior Biden administration officials, who briefed reporters ahead of time before the announcement, insisted that the partnership was not aimed at countering Beijing.
However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the three countries were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.
“China always believes that any regional mechanism should conform to the trend of peace and development of the times and help enhance mutual trust and co-operation ... It should not target any third party or undermine its interests,” he told a regular briefing in Beijing.
Johnson said the pact was not meant to be adversarial and said it would reduce the costs of Britain’s next generation of nuclear submarines.
“Now that we have created Aukus we expect to accelerate the development of other advanced defence systems including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities,” the UK prime minister told parliament.
The three leaders stressed that Australia would not be fielding nuclear weapons but using nuclear propulsion systems for the vessels to guard against threats.
“We all recognise the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” Biden said. “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.”
Morrison said Australia would meet all of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations.
One US official said the partnership was the result of months of engagements by military and political leaders during which Britain – which recently sent an aircraft carrier to Asia – had indicated it wanted to do more in the region.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the focus on the Indo-Pacific, but said Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines would not be allowed in its territorial waters.
Singapore said it had long had relations with Australia, Britain and the United States and hoped their grouping would contribute to peace and stability.
Japan said the three countries’ strengthening of security and defence co-operation was important for peace and security.
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 with French shipbuilder Naval Group to build it a new submarine fleet worth $40bn to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines, a spokesperson for Morrison told Reuters.
France meanwhile accused Biden of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump (see report on page 9).
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
The White House said yesterday that US officials held high-level talks with Paris before announcing a deal in which Australia scrapped French submarines, but a livid France insisted it was taken by surprise.
“Senior administration officials have been in touch with their French counterparts to discuss Aukus, including before the announcement,” the official told AFP after the announcement of the three-way alliance involving the United States, Australia and Britain in which Canberra will acquire US nuclear submarines.
“I will leave it to our Australian partners to describe why they sought this new technology,” he said. “We co-operate closely with France on shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific and will continue to do so.”
Among the US firms that could benefit are General Dynamics Corporation and Huntington Ingalls Industries Incorporated.
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 Incorporated.
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.
A US official said Washington had shared nuclear propulsion technology only once before – with Britain in 1958.
“This is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects. I do not anticipate that this will be undertaken in other circumstances ... we view this as a one-off.”
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