AUKUS pact makes waves with nuclear submarine deal

Alex Willemyns for RFA and Stephen Wright for BenarNews
Washington and Wellington
AUKUS pact makes waves with nuclear submarine deal U.S. President Joe Biden (center), Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left) and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak deliver remarks on the Australia - United Kingdom - U.S. (AUKUS) partnership, after a trilateral meeting, at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California, March 13, 2023.
Leah Millis/Reuters

Updated at 3:00 p.m. ET on 2023-03-14

Australia will buy up to five U.S. nuclear-powered submarines, starting early next decade, and then build its own using a British design, according to a deal unveiled Monday that analysts say aims to counter China’s growing military power.

Meeting in San Diego under the auspices of the AUKUS security pact announced between their nations in 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the agreement was the best way to equip Australia with nuclear-propelled attack submarines as quickly as possible.

“We’re showing again how democracies can deliver our own security and prosperity, and not just for us but for the entire world,” Biden said at the event at Naval Base Point Loma, flanked by Albanese and Sunak with a hulking American submarine in the background.

Under the plan, Australia would purchase three Virginia-class submarines from the U.S., with the option to buy two more, Albanese said at the event. The first would be delivered in the early 2030s, according to a timeline released by Australia’s defense ministry.

Australia also will begin building its own nuclear-powered submarines and aims to deliver the first by the early 2040s. It would be based on a U.K. design and use technologies from all three countries. Britain plans to build its own submarines of the same design by the late 2030s. 

At the event in San Diego, none of the leaders directly mentioned China. The AUKUS security pact is widely understood to be aimed at deterring the Asian superpower. Beijing opposes Taiwan’s de facto independence and asserts that almost the entire South China Sea – a crucial global shipping route – is its territory.

Although Biden, Albanese and Sunak did not name China, their joint appearance in the southern Californian seaside city drew a sharp response from Beijing the next day.

The three allies were walking together down “a wrong and dangerous path for their own geopolitical interest,” Weng Wenbin, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a regular news conference in Beijing on Tuesday. 

The AUKUS pact has emerged from “a typical Cold War mentality, which will only stimulate an arms race, sabotage international nuclear non-proliferation system and harm regional peace and stability,” he said.  

According to a 2021 analysis for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank, a fleet of Australian nuclear submarines could help defend shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf to the northern Pacific Ocean.

Nuclear-powered submarines can indefinitely sustain speeds that are more than three times faster than conventional submarines, stay submerged for significantly longer and carry more weapons. 

China’s annual military spending was about U.S. $270 billion in 2021 compared with $142 billion in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. U.S. military spending was nearly $770 billion in 2021.

Charles Edel, a senior adviser and the Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told reporters that the submarine agreement was aimed at “convincing Beijing that it’s no longer operating in a permissive security environment.”

“The larger significance of the announcement, though, is not just submarines, but the strategic convergence we’re seeing between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.,” Edel said in a conference call on Friday. 

Key details of the announcement were leaked before the leaders’ event in San Diego.

“Its broader significance is the intentionality to drive technological integration, grow the industrial capacity, and deepen strategic coordination between all three countries,” Edel said.

Sailors assigned to a Virginia-class attack submarine – the type of submarine to be sold to Australia – man the rails Sept. 7, 2013 during the commissioning ceremony for Minnesota at Naval Station, Norfolk, Virginia. [AFP/U.S. Navy]

The sale of nuclear submarines to Australia would be only the second time that the United States has shared its closely guarded nuclear-propulsion technology with another country. 

Australia has for decades been a proponent of the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Biden said the vessels would be nuclear powered but not nuclear armed. 

As part of the plans to develop Australia’s nuclear expertise, Australian military and civilian personnel would work inside the U.K. and U.S. navies and in the U.K. and U.S. submarine manufacturing industries.

Australian state-broadcaster ABC reported that submarine purchases and Australia’s effort to build its own fleet will cost up to 368 billion Australian dollars [U.S.$245 billion] over several decades. 

“This will be an Australian sovereign capability, built by Australians, commanded by the Royal Australian Navy and sustained by Australian workers in Australian shipyards, with construction to begin this decade,” Albanese said. He predicted the effort would create 20,000 jobs in Australia. 

Sunak said work on the new generation of submarines would create “thousands of good, well-paid jobs” in the United Kingdom.

“We represent three allies who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder together for more than a century, three peoples who have shed blood together in defense of our shared values, and three democracies that are coming together again to fulfill that higher purpose,” he said.

Mihai Sora, a Pacific analyst at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said Prime Minister Albanese’s plan to visit Fiji on his way back to Australia shows the government is conscious of how the submarine deal will be received in the Pacific, where China and the United States are vying for influence. 

Leaders of Pacific island nations have said they don’t want their region to be further militarized, which sets up some tension with the U.S. and Australian goals of using “strategic deterrence” to maintain a peaceful status quo, said Sora, a former Australian diplomat in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

“The nuclear element is also troubling to Pacific communities, who will not be mollified by the distinction between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed,” he said. 

The United States, United Kingdom and France carried out more than 300 nuclear detonations in the Pacific from 1946 to 1966 as part of their weapons programs.

China’s government will likely try to maximize regional anxiety and disapproval about AUKUS through proxies in Pacific media and on social media, Sora said.  

Still, Australia and its allies will, he said, “be prepared to absorb whatever criticism comes their way if it means a secure Indo-Pacific region.”

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia said it expected Australia to “to remain consistent in fulfilling its obligations” under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon. Indonesia also said it hoped Australia would develop with the International Atomic Energy Agency “a verification mechanism that is effective, transparent and non – discriminatory.”

Malaysia, meanwhile, said it acknowledged “the needs of countries in terms of enhancing defense capabilities taking into account respective requirements and concerns.” However, Malaysia added it expected compliance with its regime in relation to the operation of nuclear-powered submarines in its waters.

U.S. Navy sailors watch their sonar screens as they work in the control room of the Virginia-class submarine USS New Hampshire during exercises underneath the ice in the Arctic Ocean north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, March 20, 2011. [Reuters]

The three-nation submarine pact culminates a process that began in late 2021 with Albanese’s predecessor, Scott Morrison, scrapping a deal made with a French naval builder to sell Australia conventionally fueled submarines. 

Morrison said at the time he feared the submarines would already be outdated when delivered. It turned into a diplomatic crisis after French President Emmanuel Macron accused Morrison of lying to him. 

Last year, Albanese’s government agreed to pay the French company about U.S. $583 million in a settlement for scuttling the contract, media reports said.

Republicans in the U.S. Congress welcomed the Biden administration’s progress with the AUKUS pact.

“The Indo-Pacific faces a direct threat from China,” said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And there is nothing more important than deterring Chinese aggression and making it hard for [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to achieve his goals.” 

This story was co-reported with Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews. This report has been updated to include comments from an analyst at the Lowy Institute.


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