Asia - Pacific

Australia to acquire nuclear submarine fleet after forming defense pact with US, UK

Formation of AUKUS comes as China becomes increasingly assertive in Indo-Pacific

Michael Gabriel Hernandez   | 16.09.2021
Australia to acquire nuclear submarine fleet after forming defense pact with US, UK FILE PHOTO

WASHINGTON

Australia announced plans Wednesday to acquire a nuclear submarine fleet following the formation of a trilateral defense pact with the US and the UK as China becomes increasingly assertive in the Indo-Pacific.

Each of the nations' leaders maintained during a joint press conference announcing the formation of AUKUS that Australia's yet-to-be-created fleet will be powered by nuclear reactors and will be armed with conventional munitions.

“Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, or establish a civil nuclear capability, and we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said virtually alongside US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Australia had previously struck a massive $90 billion deal with France to build 12 conventionally-powered submarines. That agreement appears to have ended up on the cutting room floor, according to multiple reports.

While it was not mentioned, Biden said Washington "looks forward to working with France and other key countries as we go forward."

"France, in particular, already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region," he said.

Nuclear submarines have significantly improved stealth, speed, maneuverability and endurance compared to their conventionally-powered counterparts and do not have to surface as regularly.

A senior Biden administration official who discussed the developments with reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of their formal announcement said the US, UK and Australia would be engaging fully with the UN's nuclear watchdog ahead of the transfer of sensitive nuclear know-how.

Morrison, Johnson and Biden framed the creation of AUKUS as a bid to bolster their defense capabilities in the Indo-Pacific and increase interoperability. But none of the leaders mentioned China by name, and a joint leader statement also declined to commit to naming any rival nation.

AUKUS, Biden said, "will update, enhance our shared ability to take on the threats of the 21st century."

"We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term," said Biden. "We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve, because 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.”

In addition to bolstering Australia's submarine capabilities, the creation of the security pact will increase cooperation in cybersecurity, applied artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and other undersea capabilities, according to the joint statement.

The creation of the group and decision to provide Australia with sensitive nuclear technology is highly likely to rile Beijing, which is already in the midst of incredibly strained relations with the US, and to a lesser extent, Australia.

Another US official who spoke with reporters also sought to downplay the creation of the group as a counter to China, maintaining AUKUS is not focused on any country.


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