A week before a meeting of Quad leaders in Washington DC, the Biden administration, on September 15, announced a new trilateral security partnership for the Indo-Pacific, between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. (AUKUS). As part of this, Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines with help from the U.K. and the U.S.
The trilateral grouping was formally announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who joined U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House via video-link. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also participated in the launch via video link.
“The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures,” Mr. Morrison said, adding that AUKUS will enhance Australia’s contribution to its other partnerships, including the Quad.
“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,” Mr. Biden said.
There was no divide separating the interests of America’s Atlantic and Pacific partners, he said, adding that the U.S. would work with other partners — such as the Quad and ASEAN — in the region. Mr. Biden also singled out France for its growing presence in the region and role in strengthening security there.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the announcement , a senior administration official outlined a trilateral grouping that was security focused, suggesting it was different from - but complementary to - arrangements such as the Quad.
The nuclear powered submarines will be built in Adelaide, Mr. Morrison said, in close cooperation with the U.K. and the U.S.. Officials said the 18-month project to deliver the first fleet, would help Australia acquire submarines that are quieter than their conventional counterparts but also more capable of being deployed for longer periods and needing to surface less frequently.
“But let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, or establish a civil nuclear capability,” Mr. Morrison said.
Mr. Biden emphasised that the submarines would be conventionally armed.
“Only a handful of countries, possess nuclear powered submarines, and it is a momentous decision for any nation to acquire this formidable capability,” Mr. Johnson said, as he highlighted the employment opportunities the partnership would create for Britons.
If the new partnership lives up to its promise, it could be a “game changer” for the region , according to Arzan Tarapore, a South Asia security expert and Stanford University scholar.
“ Alongside India’s stated intent to acquire more nuclear-powered submarines, it will amount to a step-change increase in the Quad’s undersea and anti-submarine warfare capabilities,” Mr. Tarapore told The Hindu .
AUKUS will also involve a new architecture of meetings and engagements between the three countries, as well as cooperation across emerging technologies (applied AI, quantum technologies and undersea capabilities).
Tensions have been high between Australia and an increasingly assertive China, its largest trade partner. Australia banned Chinese telecom giant Huawei in 2018 and Mr. Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 last year. China retaliated by imposing tariffs on or capping Australian exports.
However, as in the case of the Quad, U.S. officials denied the partnership was a response to China.
Peace and stability
“I do want to just underscore very clearly this partnership is not aimed [at] or about any one country , it's about advancing our strategic interests, upholding the international rules based order, and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” an official said on Wednesday.
The initiative, officials said, is in response Australia wanting to step up its game with regard to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. The partnership was also a “down-payment” the U.K. was making on its decision to engage more deeply with the Indo-Pacific, as per one official, who said the partnership was a “fundamental decision…that binds, decisively, Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations.”
Asked about extensions of this trilateral framework in the future, an administration official said AUKUS was “very rare” and a “one off” and that the U.S. sharing this kind of technology on nuclear powered submarines had been done only once before — with the U.K. and almost 70 years ago.
“I do not anticipate that this will be undertaken in other circumstances going forward,” the official said.