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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden unveils landmark submarine deal with Australia and Britain

United States President Joe Biden unveiled a three-way partnership with Australia and Britain to share nuclear powered submarines in an attempt to counter China’s rapidly growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

By Michael D. Shear and Edward Wong

President Joe Biden took his most aggressive step yet on Monday to counter China’s military expansion in the Asia-Pacific region, formally unveiling plans with Britain and Australia to develop and deploy nuclear-powered attack submarines.

Standing in front of the USS Missouri, a nuclear submarine, at the Point Loma naval base in San Diego, Biden and leaders of the other two countries described the naval partnership as a crucial way to confront China at a time of heightened tension with Beijing. It will create, U.S. officials said, a “nuclear stewardship” among the allies.

“The United States has safeguarded stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades for the enormous benefit of nations throughout the region,” Biden said, adding, “We’re showing again how democracies can deliver our own security and prosperity, and not just for us but for the entire world.”

For the first time in 65 years, Biden said, the United States will share the technology at the heart of its nuclear submarines, allowing Australia to build powerful war machines that will grow into fleets capable of facing off with Chinese subs in the South China Sea. Initially, Australia will buy three submarines like the Missouri, and will eventually build a new version, called the AUKUS, with British and American help.

The move is a sign of the degree to which Biden and his aides are investing in strategic military planning with allies and partners to counter China’s growing capabilities and to prepare for a potential armed crisis over Taiwan, the democratic island with de facto independence that Chinese leaders claim is their territory. American officials say the submarine capabilities will also help deter aggression by North Korea and Russia, which has been conducting naval exercises with China in the region.

Nuclear submarines can stay underwater longer and travel farther than conventional submarines without surfacing. They are a substantial upgrade over the Australian navy’s six diesel electric submarines, which will soon age out of service. The nuclear-powered submarines are the headline items of the AUKUS arrangement, which also includes long-term plans to cooperate on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyberwarfare and missiles.

Australia officials said Monday that the country would spend between $178 billion and $245 billion as part of the nuclear submarine arrangement.

Monday’s announcement was a key step by the three English-speaking nations to deepen the partnership called AUKUS that they announced 18 months ago. The deal had infuriated French officials, whose own $66 billion submarine deal with Australia was canceled in the process.

Standing next to Biden in front of the flags of the three countries, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain stressed the economic benefits from the deal, which they said will provide thousands of good-paying jobs for those who design, build and operate the subs.

“Our future security will be built and maintained not just by the courage and professionalism of our defense forces, but by the hard work and know-how of our scientists and engineers, our technicians and programmers, our electricians and welders,” Albanese said.

Sunak — who on Monday also invited Biden to Northern Ireland for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of conflict there — said the new alliance will cement the effort of democratic nations to contain destabilizing behavior.

“The challenges we face have only grown,” he said. “Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, the destabilizing behavior of Iran and North Korea all threaten to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division. Faced with this new reality, it is more important than ever that we strengthen the resilience of our own countries.”

The plan embeds Britain firmly into American and Australian military strategies in the Asia-Pacific region, which is likely to put London at greater odds with Beijing in the coming years.

“It’s tying the United Kingdom, a European power, to Australia, a Pacific power, with the United States as the glue holding this new partnership together,” said Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser. “And it’s a manifestation of a broader encouragement that the president has offered to European allies to be more engaged in Asia, and Asian allies like Japan and Korea to be more involved in Europe.”

In recent months, Biden and his aides have announced they will help Japan build up its military after decades of a pacifist stance by Tokyo, and they will deploy American troops and equipment at more non-U.S. military bases in the Philippines.

The Biden administration has also worked to strengthen cooperation among nations in the Quad, a nonmilitary partnership that includes the United States, India, Japan and Australia — all countries that are increasingly anxious about China’s expansive territorial claims and strategic intentions in Asia.

Officials in Beijing have accused the United States of trying to inhibit China’s growth. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, said last week during a political meeting in Beijing that the United States was leading Western countries to engage in “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, reported.

Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said Thursday at a news conference that the agreement on the submarines “constitutes serious nuclear proliferation risks, undermines the international nonproliferation system, exacerbates arms race and hurts peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.”

Sullivan said Biden planned to try to talk to Xi after the Chinese political meeting. He added that U.S. officials had spoken to Chinese counterparts about AUKUS over the past 18 months but that communications between the two nations, including in military-to-military channels, have been poorer than Washington would like. That is partly because of confrontations over a Chinese spy balloon and American accusations that China might send weapons to Russia.

China should “be open to ensuring that we have regularized, routinized patterns of communication and consultation at senior levels,” Sullivan said.

Until the new agreement, the United States had shared the technology for nuclear-powered submarines with only Britain, as part of a defense agreement signed in 1958. Officials in Washington say it is one of the “crown jewels” of the U.S. military and the American defense industry.

American and Australian officials say Australia would have complete sovereign command over the submarines they buy. Australian commanders plan to have some American and British service members work on the ships to help with the learning process.

Australia will first buy three nuclear-powered submarines from the United States — with the option to add two more — that would be delivered starting in 2032, Sullivan said.

Some Australian politicians are demanding that Australian leaders ensure the arrangement brings substantial jobs to their country. Officials in Canberra, Australia’s capital, said Tuesday that the program would add 20,000 jobs over the next three decades.

The United States and Britain will provide Australia with nuclear fuel for their submarines while adhering to strict standards of nonproliferation of weapons-grade nuclear material, U.S. officials said.

As part of the agreement, the United States and Britain will rotate nuclear-powered submarines into port in Perth, Australia, by 2027. One such submarine, the USS Asheville, is there now on a port visit, before the formal schedule of rotations.

Australian engineers will also work on production sites in the United States and Britain. The first of the new class of British-made submarines are expected to be delivered to the British navy by the late 2030s, before Australia builds the next batch at a new shipyard in Adelaide. Australian officials hope to complete their first submarine in 2042.

Biden has requested $4.6 billion of federal money from now until 2028 to expand the United States’ submarine manufacturing capacity, with half of those funds expected to go to production and half to maintenance, and Australia will also contribute to that expansion.

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