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What US-Australia Deal on Nuclear Submarines Means for Indo-Pacific

On Monday, US president Joe Biden appeared alongside Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minster Rishi Sunak at a naval base in San Diego. He praised AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between the three countries: "AUKUS has one overriding objective: to enhance the stability of the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly shifting global dynamics," he said.


Biden unveiled new plans to create nuclear-powered submarines as the three countries look to cement their alliance. By the beginning of 2030, the United States will sell Australia three nuclear-powered submarines of the Virginia class, with the option of purchasing two more if necessary. These would include ships created from scratch or from Washington's stock. Also under the pact, US and British vessels will be deployed near Perth.


The partnership, which was announced in 2021, will eventually lead to Australia building and maintaining its own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. During an interview on a weekend visit to India, Australian PM Anthony Albanese said that Australia plans to build shipyard facilities in the western part of its territory to construct submarines. As part of the agreement, the US will increase port visits there to familiarize Australia with nuclear technology. Biden mentioned the USS Asheville was docked in Perth, Australia, on Monday.


In the program's latest phase, Britain will design and build the first new SSN-AUKUS submarines. It is then expected that the Royal Australian Navy will begin building its own in Australia in the 2040s. This timeline will ensure that there is no capability gap as Australia retires its older Collins-class submarines. 


For the US, the sale of nuclear-powered submarines and the sharing of top-secret nuclear propulsion technology represents a significant shift. Since 1958, the US has not shared nuclear-propulsion technology with any country other than the UK. Australian naval capabilities will be bolstered by the new nuclear-powered submarines, which are more stealthy and have a longer operational range than their conventionally powered counterparts.


All three leaders emphasized the economic opportunities the deal would bring. According to Albanese, the effort behind AUKUS will "strengthen and grow Australia's economy for decades" by growing and supporting necessary supply chains as well as creating "around 20,000 direct jobs for Australians." 


The People's Republic of China (PRC) leadership was loud in its disapproval of the announcement and accused the three western nations of having a "cold-war mentality." 


A day after the US, UK, and Australia unveiled details about the AUKUS nuclear submarines, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said, "The latest joint statement … demonstrates that the three countries, for the sake of their geopolitical interests, completely disregard the concerns of the international communities and are walking further and further down the path of error and danger." 

China claims that the AUKUS agreement violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. US and Australian officials have pushed back against China's claim by stressing that the submarines are "nuclear powered, not nuclear armed."


The pact is widely perceived as a response to China's growing power in the region and worldwide. Caroline Kennedy, the US Ambassador to Australia, described AUKUS as a "bigger and deeper collaboration" between the two countries and said it would provide "a lot of deterrence" in the Indo-Pacific.


Anthony Albanese said he didn't anticipate that Australia's agreement with the US would harm its relationship with China. During his meeting with Albanese, Biden likewise downplayed the rivalry with China, saying, "I don't view what we're doing as a challenge to anybody." On the other hand, Australia's defense minister has openly stated that AUKUS is necessary to counter the largest conventional military buildup in the region since World War II. 


The Indo-Pacific, also known as the East Asian Hemisphere, is the world's newest "super-region." The United States is a Pacific power with significant financial interests in the region (its own West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam). It also has treaty obligations to Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines, as well as a strong commitment to defend Taiwan. 


Since Xi Jinping took over as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, China's global foreign policy goals have grown, with the East China Sea being a major focus. It has adopted aggressive maritime policies, such as carrying out military exercises in preparation for territorial disputes, securing strategic locations in the Indian Ocean, and investing heavily in military technology.


In response, nearly all US allies in the Indo-Pacific have strengthened their connections with Washington and formed new networks with one another over the last decade. New Indo-Pacific plans have been announced by nations like Japan, Australia, and India. The US, Australia, Japan, and India have recently increased their cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). 


These alliances reinforce China's sense that hostile neighbors surround it. Thursday, Beijing's Foreign Ministry said that US questions and criticisms about China's plans were an attempt to "make excuses for its military expansion and pursuit of hegemony." 


The rhetoric and plans made by various countries make it apparent that influential players are thinking of security in the Indo-Pacific in terms of containment and supremacy rather than cooperation and constructive competition. As a result, tensions are rising in the region. It remains unclear whether the emerging AUKUS deal will help stabilize the Indo-Pacific through deterrence or if it will push the region closer to conflict.



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