US President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia and the United Kingdom on Monday, March 13, announced that Australia will purchase nuclear-powered attack submarines from the US to modernize its fleet amid growing concern about China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden flew to San Diego for talks with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on an 18-month-old nuclear partnership given the acronym AUKUS – for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The partnership, announced in 2021, enables Australia to access nuclear-powered submarines, which are stealthier and more capable than conventionally powered vessels, as a counterweight to China’s military buildup.
Biden stressed that the submarines are “nuclear powered, not nuclear armed.” “These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind of them,” he said at an outdoor ceremony at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, where he was joined by the other leaders. At least two submarines were moored in the background. Albanese said the agreement “represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability in all of our history.”
In a joint statement before the formal announcement, the leaders said their countries have worked for decades to sustain peace, stability and prosperity around the globe, including in the Indo-Pacific. “We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order,” they said in the statement, released before their joint appearance in San Diego. “The steps we are announcing today will help us to advance these mutually beneficial objectives in the decades to come,” they said.
Cancellation of contract for French-built fleet
Australia is buying up to five Virginia-class boats as part of AUKUS, said Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, who accompanied Biden to California. A future generation of submarines will be built in the UK and in Australia with U.USechnology and support.
The US would also step up its port visits in Australia to provide the country with more familiarity with the nuclear-powered technology before it has such subs of its own. Biden will also meet individually with Albanese and Sunak, an opportunity to coordinate strategy on Russia’s war in Ukraine, the global economy and more.
The secretly brokered AUKUS deal included the Australian government’s cancellation of a $66 billion contract for a French-built fleet of conventional submarines, which sparked a diplomatic row within the Western alliance that took months to mend.
‘Fully gone into the US camp’
China has argued that the AUKUS deal violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It contends that the transfer of nuclear weapons materials from a nuclear-weapon state to a non-nuclear-weapon state is a “blatant” violation of the spirit of the pact. Australian officials have pushed back against the criticism, arguing that they are working to acquire nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed, submarines.
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“The question is really how does China choose to respond because Australia is not backing away from what it – what it sees to be doing in its own interests here,” said Charles Edel, a senior adviser and Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think that probably from Beijing’s perspective they’ve already counted out Australia as a wooable mid country. It seemed to have fully gone into the US camp.”