“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow,” Biden said from the White House in between two monitors showing the other world leaders. “AUKUS — it sounds strange, all these acronyms, but it’s a good one.”
“We must now take our partnership to a new level,” said Morrison.
“We’re adding a new chapter in our friendship,” Johnson added.
All three countries will work over the next 18 months to figure out how best to deliver the technology, which the U.S. traditionally has only shared with the U.K., the official said. U.S. officials and experts noted that Australia currently doesn’t have the requisite fissile material to run a nuclear-powered submarine, meaning the next year and a half of negotiations will likely feature nuclear-material transfer discussions.
Washington and Canberra signed a gold-standard “123 agreement” in 2010 in which Australia promised not to enrich or reprocess nuclear material sent to it by the U.S.
Australia doesn’t seek a nuclear weapon, Morrison and Biden emphasized. Still, a senior U.S. administration official previewing the remarks Wednesday morning said of the nuclear-powered submarines that “this technology is extremely sensitive. This is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects. I do not anticipate that this will be undertaken in other circumstances going forward.”
There’s nothing explicitly about China in the three-way deal, but two U.S. officials noted that the subtext of the announcement is that this is another move by Western allies to push back on China’s rise in the military and technology arenas.
“This is a surprising and extremely welcome sign of the Biden administration’s willingness to empower close allies like Australia through the provision of highly advanced defence technology assistance — something that Washington has rarely been willing to do,” said Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defense programming at the United States Center in Sydney. “It suggests a new and more strategic approach to working collectively with allies on Indo-Pacific defence priorities.”
Canberra will abandon a $90 billion submarine deal with France and will instead acquire American-made nuclear-powered submarines, with help from the U.K. The French deal had long been in trouble, with the Naval Group, the French shipbuilder tasked with constructing the 12 submarines, and the Australian government sparring over design changes and cost increases over the past several years.
Neither Naval Group nor the French government has commented on the change in direction.
A new class of nuclear-powered submarines would give Washington and its allies in the Pacific a powerful new tool to attempt to contain Chinese military expansion, and would follow on the current deployment of a British aircraft carrier to the region, and recent transits by French and German warships to the South China Sea.
The U.S. and U.K. have long partnered on their nuclear-powered submarine programs, sharing technology across their various classes of ships. Bringing Australia into the fold would be a major step in increasing the ability of the three countries to operate together undersea across the Pacific, as well as adding a powerful allied punch in the region that is currently lacking.
Another U.S. official said that any sale of submarines to Australia would take several years. But in the interim, there will be a push for more American nuclear submarines to make port calls in Australia to show presence. Late last year, the U.S. wrapped up an agreement with Norway to expand and upgrade a port in the Arctic to allow American nuclear-powered submarines to dock and resupply, a major move…