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U.S.-led alliance to give Australia nuclear submarines to counter China

New AUKUS joins Canberra to U.S., U.K. 'for generations' in Indo-Pacific

U.S. President Joe Biden, in the East Room of the White House, is joined virtually by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to introduce a security partnership on Sept. 15.   © AP

NEW YORK -- The U.S., Australia and the U.K. have unveiled a new Indo-Pacific security alliance that will enable Canberra to deploy nuclear-powered submarines in a riposte to China's growing maritime power. 

The three allies will deepen cooperation on a range of defense capabilities for the 21st century, including artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum technologies and undersea capabilities, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday. 

The alliance, dubbed AUKUS, will begin by helping Australia acquire its first nuclear-powered submarines, which are quieter, faster and can stay submerged longer than traditional diesel-powered submarines. Canberra will likely scrap a plan to acquire 12 French-designed conventional submarines and will instead receive technical assistance from Washington and London to build the new class of submarines.

The move prompted a furious response from Paris that the pact showed a "lack of coherence" France "can only note and regret." It is also a blow to the strategic ambitions of the European Union, which is due on Thursday to publish a new Indo-Pacific strategy.

But U.S. officials hailed the pact as a historic announcement that "binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations."

Australia's shift away from China -- which began from Beijing's angry reaction to Canberra's call for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19 -- has been one of the most significant geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years. Wednesday's announcement cements Australia's place in the U.S.-U.K. camp, especially as it blends Australia's armed forces into the United States' plans to counter China.

In a potential conflict with China, many U.S. military planners believe that only a submarine could operate in the Taiwan Strait -- China's 2,000 short- to medium-range missiles could sink every surface ship that entered the waters.

As Beijing builds up its military capabilities in the region, its ability to deny entry of surface ships could extend to the South China Sea. 

The AUKUS collaboration on nuclear-powered submarines, therefore, fits into this big picture. 

The nuclear-powered Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Minnesota during construction at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Virginia. Its home port is now Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Another aspect of AUKUS is that it brings post-Brexit U.K. into an Indo-Pacific grouping.

"Great Britain is very focused on the concept of 'global Britain,' and their tilt is about engaging much more deeply with the Indo-Pacific, and this is a down payment on that effort," the senior U.S. official said.

Instead of inviting the U.K. into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which comprises the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, the Biden administration chose to form a new grouping with perhaps more flexibility to expand defense cooperation by excluding Japan, which has constitutional restraints, and India, which has a policy of strategic autonomy.

U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the joint announcement in a three-way virtual appearance.

"It's about connecting America's existing allies and partners in new ways and amplifying our ability to collaborate, recognizing there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and Pacific partners," Biden said. "Indeed, this effort reflects a broader trend of key European countries playing an extremely important role in the Indo-Pacific."

Morrison said the partners will work together over the next 18 months to determine the best way forward to deliver the new nuclear-powered submarine fleet. But he added that Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability.

"We will continue to meet all our nuclear nonproliferation obligations," he said.

Johnson said the U.K. will draw on the submarine expertise it has acquired over the past 60 years to assist Canberra.

"It is a momentous decision for any nation to acquire this formidable capability. And perhaps equally momentous for any other state to come to its aid," he said.

As to why Washington chose to form a new grouping rather than expand the Quad, Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said, "Not every ally or partner has to be in every coalition."

Coalition membership is built around the "three R's," she said: "Are the members relevant to the particular subset of issues? Are the members ready? Do they have the resources?"

"So, in this case, some things might be easier because all three are Five Eyes countries," she said, referring to an intelligence-sharing group that also includes New Zealand and Canada. "But on the other hand, keep in mind that Japan and India are more like-minded on China than the U.K."

The Chinese Embassy in Washington denounced the grouping, Reuters reported. The countries "should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties. In particular, they should shake off their Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice," embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said.

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