The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have announced the creation of a trilateral security pact in the Indo-Pacific. Known as “AUKUS,” it will see the three countries coming together to share emerging security technologies and aid in the development of Australia’s nuclear submarine fleet.
US President Joe Biden announced the pact in the East Wing of the White House, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson joining via video. The pact seeks to strengthen the stability of the Indo-Pacific, at a time when US-China relations are relatively strained.
“Today, we’re taking another historic step to deepen and formalize cooperation among all three of our nations because we recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” Biden said. “This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances.
“This initiative is about making sure that each of us has the most modern capabilities we need to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats,” he added.
The development of nuclear-powered submarines in Australia is the primary focus of the pact, which also includes a further sharing of emerging technologies, including quantum, cyber and artificial intelligence. This is alongside the Five Eyes alliance the three already have with Canada and New Zealand. The partnership will also involve a closer alignment of regional actions and policies, and a greater integration of their defense industries and militaries.
Development of nuclear-submarines in Australia
The largest aspect of the pact revolves around the development of nuclear-powered submarines in Australia, which will allow the country’s navy to better counter Chinese nuclear-powered sea vessels in the region. The task will be undertaken with the help of the US and the UK, with British sources claiming conversations regarding the deal began as early as March 2021.
Morrison shared that teams from all three countries will be working to create a joint plan over the next 18 months for assembling the nuclear-powered vessels, which will be built in Adelaide. The plan will allow Australian submarines to remain at sea for as long as five months and to navigate the waters more quietly, to better evade enemy detection.
Speaking about the decision, Johnson said, “This will be one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world, lasting decades and requiring the most advanced technology.”
“This will include an intense examination of what we need to do to exercise our nuclear stewardship responsibilities here in Australia,” Morrison added. “But let me be clear. Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability.”
This project makes Australia the seventh country to have submarines propelled by nuclear reactors. Despite Morrison’s assurances, critics feel the pact sets a dangerous precedent for countries to exploit a loophole in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as it opens up the possibility that nuclear material could be diverted to developing weapons.
Recently, China, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, has been exercising its power in Asia. Along with militarizing the South China Sea, it has threatened Taiwan and Japan, economically punished Australia and tightened controls over Hong Kong. In particular, its actions regarding Taiwan have worried international leaders.
The UK, Australia and the US have downplayed the idea the pact is aimed at China, with a senior Biden official saying the goal is to strengthen “rule-based” order. “I do want to underscore very clearly this partnership is not aimed or about any one country,” he said. “It’s about advancing our strategic interests, upholding the international rule-based order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”
Despite this, many feel AUKUS is aimed at provoking China, which has repeatedly spoken out over Biden’s refocusing of US policy during the first months of his presidency. In particular, Beijing has taken issue with the Biden administration’s denunciation of its human rights abuses in Xianjing province, its cybersecurity breaches, Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and its unfair trade practices.
Speaking with Reuters about the announcement, China’s Washington embassy spokesperson Lui Pengyu said that countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties. In particular, they should shake off their Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.”
At present, it’s unknown how China will respond to AUKUS. According to Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation, it’s likely the country could impose economic sanctions upon those involved in the pact.