SAN DIEGO — President Biden appeared at a naval shipyard here on Monday afternoon with his British and Australian counterparts to announce a major new plan to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines in what amounts to a direct counter to China’s growing influence in the region.
“We stand at the inflection point in history where the hard work of enhancing deterrence and promoting stability is going to affect the prospects of peace for decades to come,” Biden said, standing in front of a backdrop that included flags from each country and several submarines and naval destroyers at Point Loma in San Diego.
“We’re showing again how democracies can deliver our own security and prosperity,” Biden added. “And not just for us, but for the entire world.”
The agreement is a substantial one, as Australia over the next several decades will be spending more than $100 billion to buy the submarines and build up its own industrial capacity, as well as shore up America’s and Britain’s shipbuilding capability, officials said.
The three leaders, meeting in person for the first time, huddled behind closed doors before a public ceremony in which each touted this historic significance of the agreement and where Biden cast the United States as a steady force in the world.
“We can always be relied upon,” he said.
Biden said the landmark agreement was critical for the security of the Indo-Pacific. “This first project is only beginning,” he said. “More partnerships, more potential for peace and security in the region lies ahead.”
Looking at his counterparts, he added, “I’m proud to be your shipmates.”
The agreement is intended to bolster the military capabilities of U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, deepen ties between the Australian and American militaries and enhance the American force posture in the region.
The arrangement, which comes as part of the AUKUS security pact — short for Australia-U.K.-U.S. — is the culmination of 1½ years of negotiations. The United States will initially sell Australia three Virginia-class attack submarines, with an option to buy two more, at a cost of about $3 billion each. The aim is for the first submarine to be delivered by 2032.
After that, Australia will buy a British-designed nuclear-powered sub, to be called the SSN-AUKUS, that will include substantial U.S. technology. It will be built in the U.K., with Australia eventually developing the capacity to build its own version in the 2040s.
Virginia class submarines will also for the first time be rotationally deployed to Australia later this decade, so Australian crews can train on the subs and to enhance the American presence in the region, officials said. British submarines will also be deployed for the same purpose, they said. Australian civilians and service members will be embedded with U.S. and British navies this year to begin training.
Albanese, the Australian prime minister, said the deal “represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability in all of our history.” Sunak called it “the most significant multilateral defense partnership in generations.”
“It demonstrates the ultimate commitment to allies — taking the crown jewels of America’s technology and sharing them with Australia,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters.
The only other country with whom the United States has shared the submarines is the United Kingdom, and that occurred some 65 years ago.
The deal marked the latest geopolitical maneuvering at a time of global turmoil, as Russia has invaded Ukraine and China is pushing hard to expand its influence.
“Russia’s war on Ukraine has further underscored the need to invest in our defense industrial base writ large and our allies to do so as well,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement. “AUKUS is just a manifestation of the need to do so.”
Responding to the announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday that the deal was “going ever further down a wrong and dangerous road” and was “typical of a Cold War mentality and will only provoke an arms race, break international nuclear nonproliferation mechanisms and harm regional peace and stability.”
The expansion in military force is evident throughout the globe. Germany has committed to raise its defense budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product, Finland and Sweden are pursuing NATO membership and Japan is substantially increasing its defense budget and committing to counterstrike capabilities.
When word of the deal first surfaced in late 2021, it enraged French leaders, who had their own agreement to supply submarine technology to Australia, an arrangement that was scuttled in favor of the U.S.-U.K. deal. Biden spent months courting France in an effort to heal the rift, including hosting President Emmanuel Macron for a state visit.
The AUKUS deal is important to Biden, who has sought to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward confronting China. Tensions with Beijing have periodically flared during his presidency, most recently when Biden ordered the U.S. military to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon that was flying over the continental United States.
Biden is now seeking a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping to ease tensions. “President Biden has indicated his willingness to have a telephone conversation with President Xi once they’re back and in stride coming off the National People’s Congress,” said Sullivan, referring to the annual legislative convention in China that concluded Monday.
“I can’t give you a date because there’s no date set,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One.
During a bilateral meeting with Sunak, Biden said he planned to speak with Xi sometime soon but wouldn’t necessarily reveal when it would take place.
Asked about Xi’s recent comments that the United States was leading a “containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” Biden said that he was not concerned that Xi would view the AUKUS agreement as aggression.
Biden on Monday also announced a $4.6 billion infusion into the production and maintenance of submarines over the next five years.
Sunak on Monday pledged to increase his country’s military funding by $6 billion over the next two years. Some of the funds will go toward the AUKUS deal, while other money will be used to replenish Britain’s ammunition stocks that have been depleted from helping supply Ukraine.
American officials view Australia’s multi-decade commitment, Sullivan said, as “a long term strategic bet on the United States.”
AUKUS, he said, embodies Biden’s view that allies in the Atlantic and Pacific must be connected. “That is AUKUS at its heart,” Sullivan said. “It’s tying the United Kingdom, a European power, to Australia, a Pacific power, with the United States as the glue holding this new partnership together.”
Selling the submarines also reflects an emphasis on undersea capabilities, which is an area of advantage for the United States and its allies.
“The president wants to press that advantage,” Sullivan said, adding that doing so “is important to his vision of making sure that we are modernizing and adjusting our posture, our approach and our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific to meet the challenges as we find them today, not as they were 30 or 40 years ago.”
Still, the United States does not plan to extend the pact to other allies, Sullivan said. He framed the agreement as more a reflection of American interest in helping an ally than in broadening its efforts in the region.
“There are those who are suggesting that the United States has in mind some Asian NATO, and they do this in an effort to kind of suggest we’ve got some grand master plan about NATO allies in Asia,” Sullivan said. “And that’s simply not right. It’s not something we are seeking to do.”
Still, several officials cite a more aggressive posture taken by Xi as a reason for the United States and its allies to bolster their position in the region.
“What we’ve seen is a series of provocative steps that China has undertaken under the leadership with Xi Jinping over the last five to 10 years,” said a senior administration official. “I would reject the idea that what allies and partners, all of whom who have been committed to working constructively with China where possible, are taking steps that are somehow designed to contain China. This is an attempt to defend and secure the operating system of the Indo-Pacific.”
U.S. officials stressed that Australia is expected to contribute a “proportional share” to American shipyards for the construction and maintenance of the submarines.
Some critics have voiced concern that the agreement could overstretch U.S. shipyards and make it harder to maintain America’s own fleet. American officials downplayed those concerns, saying that the agreement also marks a renewed commitment for the United States to bolster its own submarines.
“We will grow the U.S. attack submarine fleet over the coming years, and part of the submarine uplift is about putting more boats in the water,” Sullivan said. “We’re not just putting three boats in Australia’s hands and that’s it.”
Christian Shepherd in Taipei contributed reporting.