WASHINGTON - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese are planning to go to Washington in mid-March potentially to unveil a proposal for Australia’s nuclear submarine project, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Under plans still being thrashed out, United States President Joe Biden could host the British and Australian leaders, and the allies are expected to announce their preferred design to replace Australia’s ageing Collins-class fleet, according to the person.
The three nations are sharing classified military capabilities to allow Australia to construct and deploy new nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific region. The project is part of the so-called Aukus agreement, launched in 2021 as a trilateral alliance to counter Chinese military power in the Pacific.
China on Friday said it “firmly objects” to these plans.
“China is gravely concerned about this and firmly objects to it,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said in a news briefing.
Australia’s federal parliamentary schedule means that Mr Albanese could travel between March 10 and 19, while Mr Sunak’s government budget statement on March 15 means he is unlikely to leave the country immediately beforehand.
Mr Sunak’s office said a visit to the US is possible, but no date has been set and it would not confirm any reason for the visit. Neither Mr Albanese’s office nor the White House responded to requests for comment.
Mr Max Blain, Mr Sunak’s spokesman, declined to comment on the plan when asked by reporters in London on Thursday.
The project has taken longer than expected, with US restrictions on technology and information-sharing applying to the other Aukus members even though they are partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community.
The announcement of the pact also upset France in 2021, which saw a project to build non-nuclear submarines with Australia ditched as part of the new alliance.
Closing a two-day visit to Britain by Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Mr Marles said he had witnessed the closeness of the two nations working together.
“That, in a larger sense, is clearly happening in its most profound way through the United Kingdom and United States working with us through the architecture of Aukus to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarine capability,” Mr Marles said at a news conference in Portsmouth, southern England.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, speaking alongside Mr Marles, said a range of options on the submarines are available for discussion by Australia’s Cabinet.
“Whatever option is chosen by Australia, it will be collaborative” with Britain and the US, he said. BLOOMBERG