Eyeing China, Biden and his allies unveil nuclear submarine plan for Australia

By Steve Holland, Elizabeth Piper, David Brunnstrom and Lewis Jackson

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

At 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 described the AUKUS 2021 partnership agreement as part of a shared commitment to a free and open Country Indo-Pacific region with two of America’s “most loyal and capable allies.”

Calling it “a powerful partnership,” Sunak added, “For the first time ever, three submarine fleets across the Atlantic and Pacific will work together to keep our oceans clear…for decades to come.”

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

It said the multi-stage project would culminate with British and Australian production and operation of a new class of submarines – SSN-AUKUS – a “trilaterally developed” vessel based on Britain’s next-generation design and built in Britain and Australia would be built and “state-of-the-art” US technologies.

Britain would receive its first SSN AUKUS submarine in the late 2030s and Australia its first in the early 2040s. The ships will be built by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

“The AUKUS agreement, which we are confirming here in San Diego, represents the largest single investment in Australia’s defense capability in our history and strengthens Australia’s national security and stability in our region,” Albanese said at the ceremony.

AUKUS will mark the first time Washington has shared nuclear propulsion technology with Britain since the 1950s.

Biden emphasized that the submarines would be nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed: “These boats will not have any nuclear weapons on board,” he said.

But the deal comes with a staggering bill for Australia, estimated to cost A$368 billion ($245 billion) by 2055.

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

He said he expects AUKUS to invest A$6 billion in Australia’s industrial power over the next four years and create about 20,000 direct jobs over the next 30 years. He said it would require funding of about 0.15% of GDP per year.

Australia’s Defense Minister Richard Marles said it was an investment in the country’s security.

“It’s an investment we can’t afford,” Marles said at a press conference in Canberra.

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

When asked if he was concerned that China would view AUKUS’ submarine deal as aggression, Biden replied “no.” He said he expects to speak to Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon, but would not say when.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Friday pointed to Beijing’s own military buildup, including nuclear-powered submarines, saying, “We have communicated with them through AUKUS and have requested more information from them about their intentions.”

Australia offered China a briefing on the submarine deal, Australian Defense Secretary Richard Marles said.

At the start of the partnership, Australia also angered France by abruptly canceling a deal to buy French conventional submarines.

The deal provides for US and British submarines to be deployed in Western Australia as early as 2027 to train Australian crews and strengthen deterrence. US officials said this would affect four US submarines and one British submarine in a few years.

That first phase of the plan is already underway as the US Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine Asheville visits Perth in Western Australia, officials said.


U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink said in a media briefing on Tuesday that the U.S. briefed its partners in Southeast Asia on the AUKUS plan, including in Indonesia and Malaysia, last week “to explain clearly what.” AUKUS is and what AUKUS is not”.

A senior US official said AUKUS reflects increasing Indo-Pacific threats, not only from China vis-à-vis self-governing Taiwan and in the contested South China Sea, but also from Russia, which has been conducting joint exercises with China and North Korea.

Big questions remain about AUKUS, not least because of strict US restrictions on the extensive technology sharing required for the project and how long it will take to deliver the subs even as the perceived threat from China increases .

Noting the strained US manufacturing 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 ships that had been in US service , which would require congressional approval .

Analysts said that with China’s growing power and threats to reunite with Taiwan by force if necessary, it is crucial to advance the second phase of AUKUS, which includes hypersonic and other weapons that can be deployed more quickly.

British and Australian officials said work was still needed this month to break down bureaucratic barriers to technology exchanges and Monday’s announcement made no reference to this second phase.

The second US official said Australia will help increase submarine production and maintenance capacity in the US and UK.

He said Washington is considering investing tens of billions in its submarine industrial base on top of the $4.6 billion already committed for 2023-29, and that Australia’s contribution will account for less than 15 percent of the total.

Britain, which left the European Union in 2020, says AUKUS will help boost its economy’s low growth rate. Sunak said that AUKUS “bonds ties with our closest allies and delivers security, new technology and economic benefits at home.”

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Mike Stone, Jonathan Landay, Joel Schectman, Steve Holland, and Kirsty Needham; Writing by David Brunnstorm and Praveen Menon; Editing by Don Durfee, Grant McCool, and Stephen Coates)


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