'Indissoluble bonds': Nuclear submarine deal fortifies U.S.-Australia security ties against economic pressure from China
Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear submarine technology from the United States and the United Kingdom helps ensure that security ties between the three powers will withstand China’s economic influence.
“There are only six nations capable of fielding nuclear-powered submarines: ourselves, the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and India,” U.K. national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove said Thursday. “Australia will become the seventh, representing a significant commitment to peace and stability in the region ... These are profound, strategic shifts and collaboration on nuclear projects creates indissoluble bonds around which new matrices of collaboration can be built.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken situated the newly unveiled agreement within a broader rebuke of China that foreshadows further cooperation to counter threats from Beijing.
“Our discussions today reflect how the alliance between Australia and the United States goes far beyond our military ties, deep and as important as they are,” Blinken told reporters at the State Department. “The world saw China's aggressive response when Australia led calls for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 ... We've made it clear that actions like these targeting our allies will hinder improvements in our own relationship with the Chinese government.”
President Joe Biden’s team offered standard assurance that the submarine “partnership is not aimed [at] or about any one country,” but China’s growing power and truculence lurked behind the many references to the need for increased vigilance and military force for the U.S. and its allies. The agreements set the stage for Australia to enjoy a substantial upgrade to its submarine fleet while tightening links between the U.S. and Australian military to ensure close cooperation over the next several decades.
“The reason for all this is clear: China,” senior British lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, wrote on Twitter. “We know that we need a regional power … to partner with, and the nation that most closely shares our interests and can be relied on completely is Oz.”
China denounced the deal immediately.
“The nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race, and undermined international nonproliferation efforts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday. “The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the U.S. and the U.K. proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards.”
Lijian suggested the new arrangement gives neighboring states “full reason” to wonder if Australia plans to obtain nuclear weapons. However, President Joe Biden — along with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — underscored that Canberra is purchasing nuclear propulsion for submarines, not obtaining any additional nuclear technology.
“Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” Morrison said. “And we will continue to meet all our nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”
Tugendhat also identified the nuclear submarine deal as an asymmetric response to China’s economic coercion.
“Tonight, Beijing will have realized the pressure on Australia has triggered a response,” he wrote. “This is a powerful answer to those who thought the U.S. was pulling back and the propaganda claiming Washington wasn’t a reliable ally.”
The agreement comes at the expense of France, which is outraged at the unexpected loss of its own deal to sell diesel-powered submarines to Australia. Biden and Blinken affirmed France’s importance as an Indo-Pacific power, but the agreement upends a central plank of its approach to the region. Yet, Blinken also hinted there is value in intensifying the U.K.’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
“This partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom is a signal that we’re committed to working with our allies and partners, including in Europe, to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said Thursday. “We welcome European countries playing an important role in the Indo-Pacific. We look forward to continued close cooperation with NATO, with the European Union, and others in this endeavor.”
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