The United States and the United Kingdom have made the rare decision to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia in a move seen aimed at China. In a joint statement on September 15, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia announced the formation of a trilateral partnership — AUKUS — that, among other things, seeks to “strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests.” USIP’s Brian Harding, Carla Freeman, Mirna Galic, Henry Tugendhat and Rachel Vandenbrink discuss the significance of the decision and what to expect next.

President Joe Biden participates in a videoconference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson from the White House. September 15, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden participates in a videoconference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson from the White House. September 15, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

What is the significance of the United States and the United Kingdom’s decision to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia?

Harding: The United States and Australia collaborate extremely closely on defense technology and Australia has long looked to the United States for its most important high-end defense acquisitions. However, the agreement to collaborate on nuclear submarine propulsion is a step-change in defense cooperation and binds together the two countries’ defense establishments in new ways.

Australia did not make this decision lightly given its wariness of nuclear technology, a now-canceled $90 billion agreement with France to build non-nuclear submarines and its economic interests vis-à-vis China. Ultimately, this represents a strategic decision to deepen alliance cooperation with the United States in the face of concerns about China’s intentions in the Indo-Pacific region.

Is this decision directed at China?

Harding: Absolutely. Competing with China is at the center of the Biden administration’s national security policy and increasingly an organizing principle for the U.S.-Australia alliance. While Australia has fought with the United States in every U.S. war since World War I and Australia was a key supporter of campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, the alliance’s focus has decidedly shifted to the Indo-Pacific and China over the past decade.

However, the development of nuclear submarines will take at least a decade and the two countries in the meantime will continue to develop other defense capabilities to compete with China. We can also expect the two countries to build on existing agreements that facilitate a rotational U.S. military presence in Australia.

How has China responded to this new partnership?

Freeman: China was quick to denounce the new security partnership among Washington, London and Canberra. 

The move by the United States, Britain and Australia adds new teeth to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, once dismissed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as “sea foam.” Official Chinese statements charge the three countries with “damaging regional peace” and nuclear non-proliferation, asserting that the United States and Britain are using nuclear exports for geopolitical gain. 

The announcement of the pact following soon after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan runs counter to the official narrative of U.S. decline. Chinese media have pivoted to attacking the new agreement as the latest U.S. move to contain China and speculated that the submarines could carry nuclear weapons.

Australia, called an “adversary” and “running dog” of the United States’ in China’s state-run Global Times, is likely to bear the brunt of China’s ire through economic penalties, adding to the tariffs and other restrictions Beijing has already imposed on many Australian exports amid other bilateral strains. Relations between China and Australia have been so chilly that there has been no formal ministerial contact between China and Australia since early 2020. 

Has there been an uptick in Chinese provocations in the Indo-Pacific region in recent months? What is driving this uptick?

Freeman: China has increased its missions to assert its territorial and maritime claims across the region. There has been a particularly dramatic increase in activities by China’s air force around Taiwan. Among the factors underlying the rise in Chinese military activities around Taiwan include Beijing’s desire to demonstrate its commitment and capabilities to restoring its control over the island to the Chinese public and its opposition to expanding official contacts between Washington and Taipei.

Vandenbrink: To that end, this year China sent record numbers of warplanes on successive sorties into Taiwan’s air defense zone. China has also continued taking aggressive actions to bolster its claims over disputed areas in the South China Sea, imposing new maritime identification rules this month and staging military drills there in July.

That said, the decision to develop AUKUS, which followed months of engagements with military and political leaders, should not be taken as a hasty reaction to recent provocations. Rather, the pact reflects an increased U.S. commitment to countering a longstanding pattern of Chinese provocations in the Indo-Pacific combined with a new Australian willingness to join in that effort.

AUKUS gets the United Kingdom more closely involved in the Indo-Pacific region. Why is that significant?

Harding: The agreement will push the United Kingdom to work more closely with Australia and the United States on challenges related to the Indo-Pacific region and will increase interoperability with a close partner. This tracks with its stated interest in being more engaged in the Indo-Pacific region and working more closely with the United States and its allies in the region. In the case of this agreement, the United Kingdom will strategically leverage a comparative advantage to play a key enabling role while not depleting resources that could be used elsewhere.

Tugendhat: This represents a further application of the United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific “tilt” announced in its Strategic Review in March 2021. The U.K. also sent a fleet to begin operations in the region in May, so more than anything this represents a deepening of Anglophone defense alliances. More broadly, the United Kingdom is pleased that the sale of U.K. technology lowers U.K. defense manufacturing costs going forward. 

Does AUKUS complement or duplicate the efforts of the Quad in the region?

Harding: At the September 24 Quad summit, we can expect the leaders to applaud the AUKUS agreement. While the United Kingdom’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region are unlikely to ever match those of the Quad members, the agreement is a strong demonstration that individual Quad member’s unique relationships with non-members can afford the grouping substantial advantages.

How have other allies and partners reacted to the announcement?

Galic: On the one hand, the deal certainly underscores the long-term commitment to the region that the United States has been trying to project, which should please allies like Japan and Taiwan, which welcomed the announcement. The nuclear submarine deal will likely take years to implement and the enhanced security partnership between the three countries goes beyond the submarines to include cooperation on emerging technologies and other capabilities

At the same time, this is another move in the region that is not in coordination with European allies, who have also been left out of the Quad. France, in particular, which sees itself as an Indo-Pacific power given its many regional territories and military presence, sees this as a blow. The French foreign minister had a particularly harsh message for the Biden administration, saying of the move: “This unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision is very similar to what Mr. Trump did.” 

Tugendhat: In 2016, France had signed contracts to build diesel-electric submarines for Australia which have now been canceled overnight. They are upset at losing those contracts, and for being left outside of these conversations after their own maritime contributions with Germany to Indo-Pacific security earlier this year. Ultimately, though, the Australians may argue that they should never have bought the diesel electric submarines from France because they do not have the range or secrecy that these nuclear powered submarines do. This could, therefore, be seen as a significant increase in deterrence capabilities.

Galic: Although France, Germany and other key allies were briefed before the announcement, the United States may want to take extra efforts to make sure it keeps France and other European powers onside in the Indo-Pacific given its interest in collaborating with such partners. 

New Zealand, another U.S., NATO and Five-Eyes partner in the region, also showed concern about the nuclear aspect of the agreement, confirming the future Australian nuclear submarines would not be allowed in its waters, consistent with its longstanding anti-nuclear policies.

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