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U.S. will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia as part of new alliance, a direct challenge to China

President Biden, joined by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced on Sept. 15 a new Indo-Pacific alliance. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden announced Wednesday the United States and Britain will share highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Australia, a major departure from past policy and a direct challenge to China in its Pacific neighborhood.

Biden made the announcement alongside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who joined the president virtually, as they unveiled a new three-way defense alliance, which will be known as AUKUS. Britain is the only other nation to share U.S. nuclear submarine propulsion technology, an agreement dating back decades and aimed largely at countering the old Soviet Union.

“We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” Biden said Wednesday from the East Room of the White House. “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.”

None of the three leaders mentioned China in their remarks, but the objective of the new alliance was clear: challenging the country’s growing economic and military influence. The effort comes amid rising tensions with China over a range of issues including military ambitions and human rights, and Biden has made it clear he views China as the country’s most significant global competitor. The president spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. Biden initiated that call, but one administration official said Wednesday that the Australian submarine plan was not discussed “in any specific terms.”

China on Thursday slammed the agreement for “seriously undermining” regional stability and accused the three counties of inciting an “arms race.” At a regular press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized the United States and Britain for “extremely irresponsible” behavior.

The three countries will work over the next 18 months to hash out the details of submarine effort and will pay special attention to safeguards and nonproliferation measures, Biden said Wednesday.

Nuclear-powered submarines are faster, more capable, harder to detect and potentially much more lethal than conventional-powered submarines. The Chinese navy is thought to possess six nuclear attack submarines and many more conventional ones, with plans to expand the nuclear-powered fleet over the next decade.

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The United States sails its own nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific region, and those and other U.S. ships regularly engage in cat-and-mouse interactions with Chinese vessels that U.S. commanders have long feared could lead to an unintentional conflict.

The Navy’s three most powerful nuclear submarines were all deployed to the Pacific region over the summer. U.S. defense officials have warned of a Chinese naval buildup that challenges U.S. navigation in what the United States and its allies say is international water.

U.S. officials who spoke to reporters ahead of the announcement also avoided any direct mention of China and sidestepped questions about what message the United States was sending to its adversary with the new partnership. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement ahead of the president’s remarks.

“I do want to just underscore very clearly this partnership is not aimed or about any one country,” one senior official said. “It’s about advancing our strategic interests, upholding the international rules-based order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

Biden declined to answer questions about China after he concluded his remarks.

Countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties. In particular, they should shake off their Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice," Liu Pengyu, a spokesman at the Chinese embassy in Washington, told Reuters.

The announcement came as a surprise in Australia, where recent reports suggested France, not the United States, would be deepening military ties as it moved ahead with a plan to build $66 billion worth of diesel submarines for Australia. But then news broke late Wednesday in Australia that Morrison had convened top-secret cabinet meetings.

The arrangement could also lead to damaged relations with France, with one former French ambassador to the United States saying on Twitter the countries “stabbed” France in the back.

In a joint statement, the French minister of foreign affairs and minister of the armed forces said the decision was “regrettable” and “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia.”

“The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” the leaders said.

In response to the announcement, one Australian politician is calling for an inquiry into the agreement, saying it raised questions around nuclear nonproliferation.

“If it’s a U.S. submarine, they have highly enriched uranium in their reactors and that creates a proliferation issue in terms of Australia standing up saying, no one should have this sort of fuel available to them,” Australian Sen. Rex Patrick, a former submariner in the Australian navy, told his country’s ABC.

Nuclear propulsion is different from nuclear weaponry, and Morrison said Australia remains committed to remaining a nonnuclear weapons state.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability, and we will continue to meet all our nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”

But some experts worry about how the new arrangement will impact the global nuclear power landscape.

“I think if Australia goes down this route and builds nuclear-powered submarines and removes nuclear material from safeguards, it sets a very damaging precedent,” said James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Acton said he is particularly concerned about how Iran will react to the announcement and whether the country will attempt to skirt safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by saying it is using nuclear material to build a submarine. Before the U.S. announcement, Acton said he would expect China and Russia to vehemently oppose any efforts by Iran to take such actions, but he said the calculus could change after the United States shares nuclear propulsion technology with Australia.

“I do believe the damage to the nuclear nonproliferation regime will be very significant, and I strongly believe it will outweigh the defense benefits of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines,” he said.

The Biden administration said the United States has informed the IAEA about the announcement and will pay close attention to any nonproliferation implications from the effort.

“I do want to underscore that the Biden administration remains deeply committed to American leadership in nonproliferation,” the senior official said. “This is nuclear propulsion. Australia has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons, and Australia is, in fact, the leader in all nonproliferation efforts in the NPT and elsewhere.”

The agreement also marks an expansion of U.S. military cooperation with Australia. The country has long been a close military ally, but it is now more on a par with Great Britain, America’s foremost military ally. The United States and Australia have an existing military and diplomatic partnership known as Ausmin, short for the annual ministerial level meetings among the four defense and foreign secretaries. Australia and Britain are also part of the select intelligence grouping known as the Five Eyes.

“This new architecture is really about deepening cooperation on a range of defense capabilities for the 21st century and again these relationships with Great Britain and Australia are time-tested, our oldest allies generally,” the senior administration official said. “This is designed not only to strengthen our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific but to link Europe and particularly Great Britain more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole.”

Matt Pottinger, the former deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration and chairman of the China program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, praised the new effort.

“We are going to be pooling technological advances in important defensive capabilities,” he said, making “the sum of the alliance greater than its parts.”

Pottinger, who was briefed by the White House ahead of the announcement, added the new alliance also fulfills Biden’s promise to make the Indo-Pacific region a priority of his foreign policy.

“It adds more teeth to our collective deterrence and that helps give confidence to countries in the region to stand up for their sovereignty and push back against coercion from Beijing,” he said.

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Biden and Xi have only spoken twice since Biden took office, the second call taking place last week. The 90-minute call, which an administration official described as familiar and candid, did not yield any specific announcements, including whether Biden and Xi would hold an in-person summit later this fall.

Both leaders had been expected to travel to Europe for a climate summit in Scotland, but whether Xi still plans to attend remains unclear. Biden has confirmed his attendance, which will come just after a Group of 20 meeting in Rome.

Michael Miller in Sydney and Lily Kuo in Taipei contributed to this report.