The story so far: United States President Joe Biden, alongside his Australian and British counterparts Anthony Albanese and Rishi Sunak, unveiled on Monday, March 13, a deal to sell U.S. Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and to provide American technology for the production of such submarines in British and Australian facilities.
This will be achieved through a three-decade-long plan under the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security partnership, announced 18 months ago in September 2021.
How does AUKUS plan to jointly develop nuclear-submarine capacity?
As per Monday’s announcement,, the three countries have charted a plan stretching till the mid-2050s for them to operate integrated and interoperable nuclear-powered submarine fleets in a phased manner. The plan is expected to cost $268 to $368 billion between now and fruition in the 2050s. This is the first time the United States is sharing its nuclear-powered submarine technology with any country— other than the U.K. in the late 1950s.
Starting this year, the Australian military and civilians will join the United States Navy and the United Kingdom Royal Navy on their domestic submarine bases for the purposes of induction and technology training and to develop the ability to work together. Between 2023 and 2026, the U.S and U.K. will increase port visits of their conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine (SSNs) to Australia to provide it more familiarity with the nuclear-powered technology before it acquires its own.
Starting 2027, American and British SSNs will establish presence at the HMAS Stirling near Perth, Western Australia, on a rotational basis. This will comply fully with Canberra’s longstanding position of no foreign bases on its territory.
According to the plan’s timeline, Australia will buy three, possibly up to five, Virginia-class SSNs from the U.S. in the 2030s. Its navy will get its first made-in-Australia “SSN AUKUS” boat, with British design and American nuclear propulsion technology in the early 2050s. The SSN-AUKUS will be the future attack submarine for both Australia and the United Kingdom— the U.K. navy will get its first domestically manufactured SSN-AUKUS in the 2040s.
What are the main objectives of the deal?
Australia says it wants to advance its technological capabilities as conventional diesel-powered submarines will be less able to meet the country’s needs in the future Indo-Pacific security environment. In terms of technical and tactical aspects, nuclear-powered submarines offer superior stealth, capable of remaining completely submerged for years and having significantly lower chances of being detected by adversaries. They are faster and have longer range— the SSN AUKUS will not require refuelling throughout its lifetime of about three decades.
However, the larger aim of the submarine plan is do with the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region.
The Indo-Pacific region
While not explicitly mentioned by the leaders at first, China and its rapid military buildup have raised concerns that it could alter the security balance in a region where the U.S. has wielded significant influence. On Monday, however, British Prime Minister Mr. Sunak invoked China. Stating that challenges to global stability had only grown since the announcement of the AUKUS partnership in 2021, the leader said: “Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, the destabilising behaviour of Iran and North Korea — all threaten to create a world codefined by danger, disorder and division.”
The White House factsheet on the submarine plan also lays emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. “AUKUS demonstrates our shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and an international system that respects the rule of law, sovereignty, human rights, and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion.”
A glance at the U.S. document on its Indo-Pacific strategy reveals that countering the actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Indo-Pacific is one of the cornerstones of American policy. The document states that the Indo-Pacific faces growing challenges, “particularly from the PRC”.
“The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power. The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific,” the 2022 report by the Biden White House reads.
China has also placed put its coast guard and maritime militia in a South China sea region also claimed by the littoral nations of Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, besides building artificial islands in the region. The U.S is also concerned about China’s intensifying pressure on self-ruled Taiwan— Beijing heldmilitary drills around the island following the visit of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year.
As for why Australia has moved ahead with this plan despite China’s objections, analysts say that Canberra’s ties with its biggest trading partner China have been fraught for some years now. In 2021, when Mr. Albanese’s predecessor Scott Morrison entered the AUKUS partnership, he said, : “The relatively benign environment we’ve enjoyed for many decades in our region is behind us. We have entered a new era with new challenges for Australia and our partners.” At that time, China had mounted economic pressure on Canberra by cutting down imports of coal, wine, beef, lobsters and other goods from the nation. The White House report also talks about the PRC’s “economic coercion of Australia”.
Will it have an impact on nuclear non-proliferation as alleged by China?
After Monday’s announcement, China reiterated its long-held view on the AUKUS alliance, calling it the reflection of a “typical Cold War mentality”, and a move that would trigger an arms race and “sabotage” the global nuclear non-proliferation system.
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which the U.S. and U.K. (nuclear weapons states) and Australia (not a nuclear weapons state) are signatories, a nuclear-weapon country is not supposed to transfer such weapons or technology to a non-nuclear weapon state. While it prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons, Article 4 of the Treaty allows the exchange of nuclear materials for “peaceful purposes”.
After the deal’s announcement, China’s Mission to the United Nations tweeted the next day saying that it was an “irony” that “two nuclear weapons states who claim to uphold the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard are transferring tons of weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state”.
In a press briefing on the same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin also said that the deal violated the “purpose and object of the NPT”.
“We’ve repeatedly the said that the establishment of the so-called AUKUS security partnership between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia to promote cooperation on nuclear submarines and other cutting-edge military technologies is a typical Cold War mentality. It will only exacerbate arms race, undermine the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and hurt regional peace and stability,” Mr. Wang said.
The AUKUS partners have been emphasizing, however, that they are committed to meeting their obligations under the NPT, adding that as a non-nuclear-weapon state, “Australia does not — and will not — seek to acquire nuclear weapons”.
On March 13 as well, Mr. Biden reiterated that the deal was about providing Australia “nuclear-powered” and not “nuclear armed” submarines.
The White House factsheet highlighted that the U.S. and the U.K. would be providing Australia with nuclear material in “complete, welded power units”, that would not require refueling hrough their lifetime. It also said that the partners have been communicating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the past year to ensure that the programme upholds the integrity of the international nuclear safeguards regime.
How does the deal affect the geopolitical scenario in the Indo-Pacific?
Besides non-proliferation concerns expressed by China, the country’s Foreign Minister Qing Gang on March 7, also described the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S. as “encirclement of China”.
“The U.S. ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ seeks to gang up to form exclusive blocs, stir up confrontation, and undermine regional integration,” said Mr. Qin, speaking at the Foreign Ministry’s annual press conference.
In the run-up to the deal’s announcement, Australia has been reaching out to its partners in the Indo-Pacific to inform them of the deal and calm concerns about an arms race. The Australian government made more than 60 calls over the last week to leaders, including those in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.
Reacting to the deal on March 14, Malaysia, while appreciating the transparency from the AUKUS partners, maintained its previously critical position on the agreement. Its foreign ministry said it was important for all countries to refrain “from any provocation that could potentially trigger an arms race or affect peace and security in the region.”
Indonesia also said that it was the responsibility of all countries to maintain “peace and stability” in the region and that Canberra was expected to comply with its non-proliferation obligations.
Analysts say that with the deal, the U.S. seeks to show Indo-Pacific partners that security and freedom of navigation in the region is important to it. Bloomberg columnist and retired U.S Navy admiral James Stavridis said that the deal would encourage other Indo-Pacific countries to further ties with America. He added that U.S Navy presence in the contested regions through ship visits under AUKUS will also indicate support for Taiwan, which China has described as “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations”.
- The plan is expected to cost $268 to $368 billion between now and fruition in the 2050s.
- The White House factsheet on the submarine plan also lays emphasis on the Indo-Pacific.
- A glance at the U.S. document on its Indo-Pacific strategy document would reveal that countering the actions of the PRC in the Indo-Pacific is one of the cornerstones of American policy.