Nuclear-powered subs have significant advantages over diesel-powered vessels. They do not need to surface to recharge batteries, for example, and the boats Australia is likely to receive from the United States never need to refuel. Those Virginia-class submarines can also launch up to 16 Tomahawk missiles, giving Australia a small offensive capability that China would need to account for in the event of any conflict. Those boats could also theoretically be armed with nuclear weapons, although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison unequivocally stated his country would not acquire such weaponry.
AUKUS is thus a direct challenge to Chinese ambitions and capabilities. While Biden, Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not mention the huge nation in their remarks, the new alliance can have only one purpose. China is the only potential Australian adversary with significant naval forces and ambitions in the South Pacific region. Beefing up Australia’s naval capabilities allows the small country to pose a stronger defense if China threatens its strategic interests. It also places Britain and the United States squarely behind Australia, forcing China to recognize that any attempt to bully its neighbor would meet with a united resistance. No wonder China forcefully denounced the deal.
This masterstroke is exactly what the United States should be doing to combat China. As powerful as China is, it cannot match the combined capabilities of the United States and its allies. U.S. diplomats should be directed to firm up those alliances and increase allies’ military capabilities. The more that Asian democracies are united in response to Chinese aggression, the less likely China is to embark on military adventures such as invading Taiwan.
Biden has made other recent inroads to combat Chinese aggression. The strategically located Philippines had been tilting toward Beijing under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte but has begun to reverse course. Its defense secretary recently visited Washington to ask for advanced military equipment to help it defend its interests in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own despite an international court ruling against it. The Philippines will elect a new president next May, with Duterte trying to circumvent a ban on his reelection by running as his party’s vice-presidential nominee. The United States has already cleared the sale of F-16 fighter jets to the ally, and should consider making further sales or grants of more advanced weaponry available next year if Duterte fails in his bid.
The United States has also begun bolstering beleaguered Taiwan’s defenses. The Biden administration approved the sale of advanced howitzers to the island nation last month, another move that Beijing denounced. Taiwan’s government announced a plan on Thursday to spend an additional $8.7 billion on defense over the next five years, over and above its already growing defense budget. This is intended to expand and modernize the nation’s ability to repel a Chinese invasion. The United States should provide whatever weaponry Taiwan requests as part of this package to demonstrate its commitment to preventing Chinese expansion.
The administration is also seeking to draw Vietnam into its Asian coalition. While Vietnam is also a Communist one-party state, it has historically been at odds with its larger neighbor. The two fought a brief border war in 1979, and China’s claims over the South China Sea also endanger Vietnam’s interests in the strategic waters. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Hanoi in July, and the diplomatic world has been buzzing in recent years over rumors that the United States might establish a naval base in Vietnam. The United States has had no regular military base near the South China Sea since it withdrew from its bases in the Philippines in the 1990s. Reestablishing such a permanent presence in the region — and expanding the navy to accommodate the additional deployment — would be another brick in a strong anti-Chinese wall.
Containing China’s rise is the United States’ most important strategic objective. The AUKUS deal is another sign that Biden understands this and is taking important, positive steps toward that goal.