New international defence partnership has eyes on China

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Another acronym – AUKUS – joins an already lengthy list in the international defence world.

AUKUS is a new security partnership linking Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States that will work to protect the three countries’ people as well as “supporting a peaceful and rules-based international order” according to a Downing Street statement.

A joint statement by Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Scott Morrison has it the partnership will deepen diplomatic, security, and defence co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region to meet 21st century challenges.

“A landmark defence and security partnership agreed by the leaders of the UK, the United States and Australia to protect and defend shared interests in the Indo-Pacific,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

“Under the AUKUS alliance, we will enhance development of joint capabilities and technology sharing, ensuring our people are safe from harm and reinforcing shared goals. AUKUS will foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains.

“AUKUS is a concrete articulation of the UK’s ambition, made in the Integrated Review to deepen defence, security and foreign policy ties with like-minded allies across the globe. The agreement reflects the unique level of trust and co-operation between our three countries, who already share extensive intelligence through the Five Eyes alliance.

“The first initiative under AUKUS will be collaboration on future nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. This capability will promote stability in the Indo-Pacific and will be deployed in support of shared values and interests.

“The UK built and operated world-class nuclear-powered submarines for over 60 years. We will bring expertise and experience to the project through, for example, work carried out by Rolls Royce near Derby and BAE Systems in Barrow.

“The initial scoping phase for the new endeavour is expected to take 18 months. The design and build process will create hundreds of highly skilled scientific and engineering roles across the UK and drive investment in most high-tech sectors.”

Johnson goes on to point out the three countries are natural allies sharing interests and values, even though they are geographically separated.

The AUKUS partnership is seen as a move to contain China. “China will view the decision to expand defence co-operation with the US and UK and, in future, base US strategic strike capabilities in Australia as confirmation we are a growing military threat to its interests, such as the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Michael Sullivan, International Relations Lecturer at Flinders University.

The United States and its allies are looking to push back against China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military buildup, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the contested South China Sea.

The three western leaders did not mention China by name in Wednesday’s announcement and senior Biden administration officials, briefing reporters ahead of time, said the partnership was not aimed at countering Beijing.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the trio were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.

Countries should not build partnerships that target third countries, he told a regular Thursday briefing in Beijing.

“China will closely watch the situation’s development.”

In a three-way virtual announcement, the leaders stressed Australia will not field nuclear weapons but use nuclear propulsion systems for the vessels to guard against threats.

“We all recognise the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” said Biden.

“We need  to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve because the future of each of our nations and the world depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” he said.

Morrison said the submarines would be built in  Adelaide and Australia would meet all its nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Johnson said the pact was not  adversarial and would reduce the costs of Britain’s next generation of nuclear submarines.

“Now we have AUKUS we expect to accelerate development of other advanced defence systems including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities,” Johnson told the House of Commons.

A US official said the partnership was the result of months of engagements by military and political leaders during which Britain – which recently sent an aircraft carrier to Asia – indicated it wanted to do more in the region.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the focus on the Indo-Pacific adding Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines would not be allowed in its territorial waters under a longstanding nuclear-free policy.

Singapore said it had long relations with Australia, Britain and the United States and hoped the grouping would contribute to peace and stability.

Japan said the three countries’ strengthening of security and defence co-operation was important for peace and security.

A US official briefing ahead of the announcement said Biden did not mention the plans “in any specific terms” to Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a call last Thursday, but “underscored our determination to play a strong role in the Indo-Pacific.”

US officials said nuclear propulsion would allow the Australian navy to operate more quietly, for longer periods and provide deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.

The partnership ends Australia’s 2016 deal with French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines, a spokesperson for Morrison told Reuters.

France accused Biden of stabbing it in the back and acting like predecessor Donald Trump.

“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”

Naval Group said in a statement Australia’s decision was a major disappointment.

Biden said the three governments would launch an 18-month consultation period “to determine every element of this programme, from workforce, to training requirements, to production timelines” and to ensure full compliance with non-proliferation commitments.

The pact should be a boon for the US defence industry and among the firms that could benefit are General Dynamics Corp and Huntington Ingalls Industries.

General Dynamics’ Electric Boat business does much of the design work for US submarines, but critical subsystems such as electronics and nuclear power plants are made by BWX Technologies.

US officials did not give a time frame for when Australia would deploy a nuclear-powered submarine, or how many would be built. They said that since Australia does not have any nuclear infrastructure, it would require a sustained effort over years.



A US official said Washington had shared nuclear propulsion technology only once before – with Britain in 1958 – and added: “This is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects, I do not anticipate that this will be undertaken in other circumstances … We view this as a one-off.”