The United States announced a new alliance Wednesday with Australia and Britain to strengthen military capabilities in the face of a rising China, with Canberra to get a nuclear submarine fleet and American cruise missiles.
The announcement of the alliance — made in a video meeting by President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and his British counterpart Boris Johnson — is sure to raise hackles in Beijing.
It also infuriated France, which had been negotiating a multi-billion-dollar sale of conventional submarines to Australia.
The three leaders did not mention China in unveiling the alliance, dubbed AUKUS, but their intent was clear, with each referring to regional security concerns.
“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.
Morrison emphasized the three nations’ all respected “freedom” and “the rule of law”, and that the alliance would help ensure security in the Indo-Pacific.
The Western allies often reference the rule of law and freedoms when railing against China’s military build-up in the South China Sea.
The first major initiative announced under the new alliance was the fleet of eight state-of-the-art nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.
The submarines, said Biden and the other leaders, will not be nuclear-armed, only powered with nuclear reactors.
But they will allow Australia’s military to travel, and strike targets, far from its coast.
“(They) are quieter, faster and have longer endurance, which will allow Australia to deploy its future submarines to Indo-Pacific locations for much longer periods of time,” Ashley Townshend, of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, told AFP.
In addition to the submarine fleet, a senior Biden administration official said AUKUS will combine forces on “cyber, AI — particularly applied AI — quantum technologies and some undersea capabilities as well.”
Morrison later announced Australia would also acquire long-range US Tomahawk cruise missiles.
A Biden administration official underlined repeatedly how “unique” the decision is, with Britain being the only other country the United States has ever helped to build a nuclear fleet.
“This technology is extremely sensitive,” the official said. “We view this as a one-off.”
Happening Now: President Biden delivers remarks on a national security initiative – joined virtually by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson. https://t.co/Y22WvclIdk
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) September 15, 2021
Reassurance and Deterrence
With China building up its own navy and repeatedly testing decades of US military dominance across Asia, the creation of AUKUS, with its focus on submarines, is “meant to send a message of reassurance and a determination to maintain a strong deterrent stance,” the US official said.
Even if not carrying nuclear weapons, the new submarines will allow Australia to “play at a much higher level,” the official said.
“You will see much deeper interoperability along with our navies and our nuclear infrastructure,” the official said.
“This is a fundamental decision, fundamental. It binds Australia… and the United States and Great Britain for generations.”
China has in recent years hit Australia with trade sanctions and snubbed diplomatic talks as part of what critics says is a campaign of coercion.
Morrison on Thursday offered an “open invitation” to Chinese President Xi Jinping for talks.
French Deal Over
Biden, in an attempt to placate Paris, said France was a “key partner and ally” in the Indo-Pacific.
But the new alliance torpedoed Australia’s conventional submarine deal with France, which had been personally backed by President Emmanuel Macron.
Morrison confirmed on Thursday morning Australia would not proceed with the deal.
France’s foreign ministry said in a statement earlier that the decision to go with US submarines was “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia.”
The submarine contract with France was worth around Aus$50 billion (31 billion euros, 36.5 billion dollars) at the time of signing.
More recently the overall deal was estimated at some Aus$90, taking into account currency fluctuations and cost overruns.
The company had agreed to build 12 conventional Attack Class subs, but the order was years behind schedule, well over budget, and has become tangled in Australian domestic politics.
The AUKUS announcement comes as Australia has been boosting defense spending in response to China’s more assertive posture.
Morrison will join Biden again on September 24, this time in person, at a first White House gathering of the “Quad” diplomatic group — Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.