The Washington Post

U.S. to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia

New defense alliance is direct challenge to China in Pacific neighborho­od

- BY TYLER PAGER AND ANNE GEARAN tyler.pager@washpost.com anne.gearan@washpost.com Michael Miller in Sydney contribute­d to this report.

President Biden announced Wednesday the United States and Britain will share highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Australia, a major departure from past policy and a direct challenge to China in its Pacific neighborho­od.

Biden made the announceme­nt alongside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who joined the president virtually, as they unveiled a new three-way defense alliance, which will be known as AUKUS. Britain is the only other nation to share U.S. nuclear submarine propulsion technology, an agreement dating back decades and aimed largely at countering the old Soviet Union.

“We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-pacific over the long term,” Biden said Wednesday from the East Room of the White House. “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.”

None of the three leaders mentioned China in their remarks, but the objective of the new alliance was clear: challengin­g the country’s growing economic and military influence. The effort comes amid rising tensions with China over a range of issues including military ambitions and human rights, and Biden has made it clear he views China as the country’s most significan­t global competitor. The president spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. Biden initiated that call, but one administra­tion official said Wednesday that the Australian submarine plan was not discussed “in any specific terms.”

The three countries will work over the next 18 months to hash out the details of submarine effort and will pay special attention to safeguards and nonprolife­ration measures, Biden said Wednesday.

Nuclear-powered submarines are faster, more capable, harder to detect and potentiall­y much more lethal than convention­al-powered submarines. The Chinese navy is thought to possess six nuclear attack submarines and many more convention­al ones, with plans to expand the nuclear-powered fleet over the next decade.

The United States sails its own nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-pacific region, and those and other U.S. ships regularly engage in cat-and-mouse interactio­ns with Chinese vessels that U.S. commanders have long feared could lead to an unintentio­nal conflict.

The Navy’s three most powerful nuclear submarines were all deployed to the Pacific region over the summer. U.S. defense officials have warned of a Chinese naval buildup that challenges U.S. navigation in what the United States and its allies say is internatio­nal water.

U.S. officials who spoke to reporters ahead of the announceme­nt also avoided any direct mention of China and sidesteppe­d questions about what message the U.S. was sending to its adversary with the new partnershi­p. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announceme­nt ahead of the president’s remarks.

“I do want to just underscore very clearly this partnershi­p is not aimed or about any one country,” one senior official said. “It’s about advancing our strategic interests, upholding the internatio­nal rulesbased order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-pacific.”

Biden declined to answer questions about China after he concluded his remarks.

The announceme­nt came as a surprise in Australia, where recent reports suggested France, not the United States, would be deepening military ties as it moved ahead with a plan to build $66 billion worth of diesel submarines for Australia. But then news broke late Wednesday in Australia that Morrison had convened top-secret cabinet meetings.

The arrangemen­t could also lead to damaged relations with France, with one former French

ambassador to the U.S. saying on Twitter the countries “stabbed” France in the back.

In a joint statement, the French minister of foreign affairs and minister of the armed forces said the decision was “regrettabl­e” and “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperatio­n that prevailed between France and Australia.”

“The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structurin­g partnershi­p with Australia, at a time when we are facing unpreceden­ted challenges in the Indo-pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilater­alism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” the leaders said.

In response to the announceme­nt, one Australian politician is calling for an inquiry into the agreement, saying it raised questions around nuclear nonprolife­ration.

“If it’s a U.S. submarine, they have highly enriched uranium in their reactors and that creates a proliferat­ion issue in terms of Australia standing up saying, no one should have this sort of fuel available to them,” Australian Sen. Rex Patrick, a former submariner in the Australian navy, told his coun

try’s ABC.

Nuclear propulsion is different from nuclear weaponry, and Morrison said Australia remains committed to remaining a nonnuclear weapons state.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability, and we will continue to meet all our nuclear nonprolife­ration obligation­s.”

But some experts worry about how the new arrangemen­t will impact the global nuclear power landscape.

“I think if Australia goes down this route and builds nuclear-powered submarines and removes nuclear material from safeguards, it sets a very damaging precedent,” said James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for Internatio­nal Peace.

Acton said he is particular­ly concerned about how Iran will react to the announceme­nt and whether the country will attempt to skirt safeguards of the Internatio­nal Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by saying it is using nuclear material to build a submarine. Before the U.S. announceme­nt, Acton said he would expect China and Russia to vehemently

oppose any efforts by Iran to take such actions, but he said the calculus could change after the United States shares nuclear propulsion technology with Australia.

“I do believe the damage to the nuclear nonprolife­ration regime will be very significan­t, and I strongly believe it will outweigh the defense benefits of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines,” he said.

The Biden administra­tion said the United States has informed the IAEA about the announceme­nt and will pay close attention to any nonprolife­ration implicatio­ns from the effort.

“I do want to underscore that the Biden administra­tion remains deeply committed to American leadership in nonprolife­ration,” the senior official said. “This is nuclear propulsion. Australia has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons, and Australia is, in fact, the leader in all nonprolife­ration efforts in the NPT and elsewhere.”

The agreement also marks an expansion of U.S. military cooperatio­n with Australia. The country has long been a close military ally, but it is now more on a par with Great Britain, America’s foremost military ally. The United States and Australia have an existing military and diplomatic partnershi­p known as Ausmin, short for the annual ministeria­l level meetings among the four defense and foreign secretarie­s. Australia and Britain are also part of the select intelligen­ce grouping known as the Five Eyes.

“This new architectu­re is really about deepening cooperatio­n on a range of defense capabiliti­es for the 21st century and again these relationsh­ips with Great Britain and Australia are time-tested, our oldest allies generally,” the senior administra­tion official said. “This is designed not only to strengthen our capabiliti­es in the Indo-pacific but to link Europe and particular­ly Great Britain more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole.”

Matthew Pottinger, the former deputy national security adviser in the Trump administra­tion and chairman of the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracie­s, praised the new effort.

“We are going to be pooling technologi­cal advances in important defensive capabiliti­es,” he said, making “the sum of the alliance greater than its parts.”

Pottinger, who was briefed by the White House ahead of the announceme­nt, added that the new alliance also fulfills Biden’s promise to make the Indo-pacific region a priority of his foreign policy.

“It adds more teeth to our collective deterrence and that helps give confidence to countries in the region to stand up for their sovereignt­y and push back against coercion from Beijing,” he said.

Biden and Xi have only spoken twice since Biden took office, the second call taking place last week. The 90-minute call, which an administra­tion official described as familiar and candid, did not yield any specific announceme­nts, including whether Biden and Xi would hold an in-person summit later this fall.

Both leaders had been expected to travel to Europe for a climate summit in Scotland, but whether Xi still plans to attend remains unclear. Biden has confirmed his attendance, which will come just after a Group of 20 meeting in Rome.

 ?? NICHOLAS KAMM/POOL/REUTERS ?? U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne arrive to address the media at the State Department on Wednesday about the AUKUS initiative.
NICHOLAS KAMM/POOL/REUTERS U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne arrive to address the media at the State Department on Wednesday about the AUKUS initiative.

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