Eyeing China, Biden and Aukus allies unveil nuclear-powered submarine plan for Australia

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SAN DIEGO – The United States, Australia and Britain on Monday unveiled details of a plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines from the early 2030s, to counter China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

Addressing a ceremony at the US naval base in San Diego, accompanied by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US President Joe Biden called the agreement under the 2021 Aukus partnership part of a shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region with two of America’s “most stalwart and capable allies”.

Mr Sunak called it “a powerful partnership”, adding: “For the first time ever, it will mean three fleets of submarines working together across the Atlantic and Pacific keeping our oceans free... for decades to come.”

Under the deal, the US intends in the early 2030s to sell Australia three US Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines built by General Dynamics, with an option to buy two more if needed, a joint statement said.

It said the multi-stage project would culminate in British and Australian production and operation of a new class of submarine – SSN-Aukus – a “trilaterally developed” vessel based on Britain’s next-generation design that would be built in Britain and Australia and include cutting-edge US technologies.

Britain would take delivery of its first SSN-Aukus submarine in the late 2030s, and Australia would receive its first in the early 2040s. The vessels will be built by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

“The Aukus agreement we confirm here in San Diego represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in our history, strengthening Australia’s national security and stability in our region,” Mr Albanese said at the ceremony.

The deals under Aukus will be the first time Washington has shared nuclear-propulsion technology since it did so with Britain in the 1950s.

Mr Biden stressed that the submarines would be nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed. “These boats will not have nuclear weapons of any kind on them,” he said.

But the deal comes with an eye-watering bill for Australia. An Australian defence official said the project would cost A$368 billion (S$330 billion) by 2055.

Mr Albanese defended the spending, saying it was “an economic plan, not just a defence and security plan”.

He said he expected Aukus would result in A$6 billion invested in Australia’s industrial capability over the next four years and create about 20,000 direct jobs over the next 30. He said it would require funding amounting to about 0.15 per cent of gross domestic product per year.

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said it was an investment in the nation’s security. “It is an investment that we cannot afford not to make,” he told a news conference in Canberra.

China has condemned Aukus as an illegal act of nuclear proliferation. The plan “constitutes serious nuclear proliferation risks, undermines the international non-proliferation system, fuels arms races, and hurts peace and stability”, China’s permanent mission to the United Nations said in a tweet after the announcement.

China warned on Tuesday that Australia, Britain and the US were treading a “path of error and danger” after they unveiled the submarine deal.

“The latest joint statement from the US, UK and Australia demonstrates that the three countries, for the sake of their own geopolitical interests, completely disregard the concerns of the international communities and are walking further and further down the path of error and danger,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

In launching the partnership, Australia also upset France by abruptly cancelling a deal to buy French conventional submarines.

Asked if he was worried that China would see the Aukus submarine deal as aggression, Mr Biden replied “no”.

He said he expected to speak to Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon, but would not say when.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan last Friday pointed to Beijing’s own military build-up, including nuclear-powered submarines, saying: “We have communicated with them about Aukus, and sought more information from them about their intentions.”

Australia offered China a briefing on the submarine deal, but was not aware of any response from Beijing, Mr Marles said.

The Australian government made more than 60 calls over the past week to leaders, including those in the Pacific and South-east Asia, to inform them about the agreement, Mr Marles said during a televised media briefing.

The agreement will see US and British submarines deployed in Western Australia as soon as 2027 to help train Australian crews and bolster deterrence.

US officials said this would involve four US submarines and one British submarine in a few years.

This first phase of the plan is already under way, with the US nuclear-powered attack submarine Asheville visiting Perth in Western Australia, officials said.

Big questions and huge investment

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink said in a media statement on Tuesday that the US had last week informed its partners in South-east Asia – including Indonesia and Malaysia – about the Aukus plan, “to explain clearly what Aukus is and what Aukus is not”.

A senior US official said Aukus reflected mounting Indo-Pacific threats, not just from China towards self-ruled Taiwan and in the contested South China Sea, but also from Russia, which has conducted joint exercises with China, and from North Korea.

Big questions remain about Aukus, not least over strict US curbs on the extensive technology sharing needed for the project and how long it will take to deliver the submarines, even as the perceived threat posed by China mounts.

In a reflection of stretched US production capacity, a second senior US official told Reuters it was very likely that one or two of the Virginia-class submarines sold to Australia would be vessels that had been in US service, something that would require congressional approval.

Analysts said that given China’s growing power and threats to reunify with Taiwan by force if necessary, it was vital to advance the second stage of the Aukus partnership that involves hypersonics and other weaponry that can be deployed more quickly.

British and Australian officials said earlier in March that work was still needed to break down bureaucratic barriers to technology sharing, and Monday’s announcement did not cover this second stage.

The second US official said Australia would contribute to boosting US and British submarine production and maintenance capacity.

He said Washington was looking at “double-digit billion” investment in its submarine industrial base on top of US$4.6 billion (S$6.2 billion) already committed for 2023 to 2029, and the Australian contribution would be less than 15 per cent of the total.

Britain, which left the European Union in 2020, says Aukus will help boost its economy’s low growth rate.

Mr Sunak said Aukus was “binding ties to our closest allies and delivering security, new technology and economic advantage at home”. REUTERS

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