WASHINGTON — The United States will arm Australia with nuclear submarine technology as part of a new defense partnership announced Wednesday, one of many steps President Joe Biden is taking to strengthen alliances as a bulwark against China.
The agreement includes the United Kingdom, and it will also involve closer cooperation on cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. The centerpiece, however, is the decision to make Australia one of a handful of nations to field submarines powered by nuclear reactors.
“Our nations will update and enhance our shared ability to take on the threats of the 21st century, just as we did in the 20th century — together,” Biden said from the White House, where he was flanked by video screens featuring Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Boris Johnson of Britain.
Morrison described it as a “next-generation partnership, built on a strong foundation of proven trust” that will help advance “the cause of peace and freedom.”
The agreement — known as AUKUS, an acronym of the three countries’ names — does not give Australia nuclear weapons. But the technology will enable the country’s submarines to travel farther and more quietly, increasing their capabilities in a region where tensions with China are on the rise.
Naval disputes are already common in the South China Sea, which Beijing has claimed as part of its territorial waters, and Taiwan has raised alarms about aggression by China, which considers the island a renegade province.
Adding to the combustible mix, North Korea and South Korea conducted ballistic missile tests this week as diplomatic talks involving the two countries remained stalled.
A senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the announcement before its unveiling, stressed that “this partnership is not aimed [at] or about any one country.” However, it comes against the unmistakable backdrop of Biden’s sweeping efforts to confront China’s expanding economic and military ambitions.
“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,” Biden said.
In addition to AUKUS, the president has emphasized regional collaborations such as the Quad, which consists of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. Biden plans to host a summit with those countries’ leaders at the White House next week.
China has bristled at American partnerships that could serve as a counterweight to its influence.
“Forming closed and exclusive ‘cliques’ targeting other countries runs counter to the trend of the times and deviates from the expectation of regional countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week. “It thus wins no support and is doomed to fail.”
Australia has six aging submarines with diesel engines, and it was under contract to buy a dozen new ones from France. Now Australia plans to scrap that project, which was beset by cost overruns, in favor of working with the U.S. and Britain to develop a nuclear fleet.
Morrison said the submarines would be built in Adelaide, on his country’s southern coast.
France expressed dismay that Australia was ditching its contract and that it was left out of the agreement with the U.S. and U.K.
“The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France ... shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” said a joint statement by the French ministers of foreign affairs and the armed forces.
Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, expressed surprise that the U.S. was sharing such sensitive technology and that Australia would pursue such expensive military hardware.
“For a country with a relatively small defense budget like Australia,” he said, “the important question isn’t what the submarine can do but what you’re giving up in terms of opportunity cost.”
Jennifer Moroney, an expert on security cooperation who ran the Rand Corp.’s first office in Australia, said China’s expanding reach in the region has prompted new military investments there.
“Australia needs to build up its defensive capabilities,” she said. “Submarines are just a piece of that.”
It’s unclear how many submarines will be built and how quickly Australia could begin operating them. Their development will take years, and it will be a challenging undertaking. Even though Australia is a leading producer of uranium, it has never operated nuclear power plants.
The three allies plan to spend the next 18 months examining how their collaboration on the submarine project will work.
The only other time the U.S. has shared nuclear submarine capabilities with another country is when it assisted the U.K. with its own fleet in 1958.
The senior administration official described the technology as “extremely sensitive” and said the White House viewed the agreement with Australia “as a one-off” exception.
Australia would be the first country without nuclear weapons to have nuclear-powered submarines, a decision that some analysts said raised arms proliferation concerns. Other nations may try to follow in its footsteps by enriching uranium for naval reactors, creating more avenues to develop material needed for nuclear bombs without the safeguards provided by regular inspections.
“In the cost benefit analysis, the risks to the nonproliferation regime are very large,” said James Acton, the co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I would find it hard to believe that the benefits to Australia and the U.S. and anyone else outweigh the risks.”