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Opinion How the submarine deal fits into the complex U.S. strategy for the Pacific

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hold a press conference after a meeting Monday in San Diego, California. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
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Monday’s announcement of the AUKUS partnership is a “present at the creation” moment for U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific. But despite China’s fears, the agreement isn’t a NATO-style containment pact. It’s the hub of something more flexible and adaptive.

President Biden didn’t discuss China’s growing military power, the obvious motivation for AUKUS, in announcing the pact Monday in San Diego. He was flanked by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with an immense submarine, the USS Missouri, in the background. “This first project is only beginning. More partnerships. More potential. More peace and security in the region lies ahead,” Biden said.

“We’re not looking to create a NATO in the Indo-Pacific,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in describing the submarine-building agreement announced Monday by the three leaders. AUKUS is about sharing defense technology, but it’s also part of a series of overlapping security partnerships in the region.

NATO is a formal treaty alliance with a large number of countries whose actual interdependence has often been less than advertised. Think of a headstrong Turkey or France. America’s emerging strategy for the Indo-Pacific is something different, with a range of coalitions to address various needs. AUKUS is a hard defense alliance, for example, while the Quad partnership of India, Japan, Australia and the United States seeks the soft coalescence of technology and politics.

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A way to describe the new U.S. Asia policy is as a kind of “zone defense” — a web that links different groups of countries that all worry about China. At the center of many of these nodes is Japan, which is becoming America’s most important ally in the region as it embraces rearmament.

Several triangles of power are emerging: The United States is helping Japan mend fences with South Korea and form a strong tripartite security relationship. Japan is helping the United States improve relations with the Philippines, a country that had been leaning toward China but got tired of being muscled by Beijing. Similar relationships are evolving to connect the United States and Japan with such swing states as Vietnam and Indonesia.

The strategy, to be sure, focuses on China. But it’s not a wall of containment so much as an interdependent net. As a second senior administration official who asked not to be named to speak freely explains: “Previous Asian security policy was a series of bilateral interactions between Washington and its allies, the proverbial hub and spoke. Now we are encouraging more connections along the hub and more wheels.”

To use another metaphor, Cold War containment of the Soviet Union was like a chess game with a static board and a stress on offensive capabilities, this official argues. The Indo-Pacific paradigm is more like the classic Asian game of “Go,” with waves of advancing and retreating action, rather than stress on an overpowering thrust.

AUKUS matters partly because it brings Britain, a European power, into America’s long-term defense plans for Asia. The United States will share sensitive nuclear technology to provide attack submarines for Australia and augment Britain’s fleet. Britain will receive its first AUKUS subs in the late 2030s, and Australia will get them in the 2040s, Sullivan said. In the meantime, America will provide Australia with up to five U.S. nuclear-powered attack subs starting in 2032.

A second “pillar” of AUKUS will involve sharing other advanced defense technologies among the three countries and perhaps other partners, such as Japan. Those technologies will include hypersonic flight, artificial intelligence, undersea warfare, cyberweapons, autonomous systems and electronic warfare, the senior administration official said.

The missing link in this grand strategy, unfortunately, is economic policy. The Biden administration has scorned the trade alliance known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it hasn’t come up with anything powerful to replace it. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity launched by Biden last year bolstered supply chains. But it hasn’t delivered on broader goals, such as a digital agreement that would shape technology investment and development.

Biden needs to recognize that America’s partners in Asia depend on trade. Until he demonstrates that he’s willing to defy political resistance to trade in the Democratic Party — and show Asian partners that U.S. markets will remain open to their exports — some of the benefits of the new strategy for the region will be blunted.

The Biden administration is understandably celebrating its strategic initiative for Asia. But before popping the champagne corks, it should recall Dean Acheson’s description in his memoir of the launch of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. As the signatories were gathering, the Marine Band “added an unexpected note of realism” by playing two songs from “Porgy and Bess,” the Broadway musical: “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”