Australia will buy three nuclear-powered attack submarines from the United States as part of a three-nation, multi-decade deal with Great Britain that is aimed at strengthening the allies' presence in the Asia-Pacific region as China grows bolder militarily.
President Joe Biden says the decision to share sensitive U.S. nuclear technology with Australia is a big deal — and a necessary one. He spoke Monday in San Diego, California.
"As 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, the United States can ask for no better partners in the Indo-Pacific, where so much of our shared future will be rooted," Biden said at Naval Base San Diego, flanked by both countries' leaders. "Forging this new partnership, we're showing again how democracies can deliver our own security and prosperity, and not just for us, but for the entire world."
The multi-decade deal will see American and British nuclear-powered submarines rotating into Australian waters as soon as 2027. By the early 2030s, Australia will buy at least three — and as many as five — American nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines designed to hunt and attack other subs. And the three nations will work together to develop a new nuclear attack submarine — a project that could take two decades.
Biden stressed that the deal concerns nuclear propulsion, not arms, and the leaders pledged to adhere to their nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the deal, which could cost nearly $150 billion (as much as $200 billion Australian dollars) will create jobs and boost innovation and research.
"The AUKUS agreement we confirm here in San Diego represents the biggest single investment in Australia's defense capability in all of our history, strengthening Australia's national security and stability in our region," he said.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also announced that his nation would increase military spending to 2.5% of their GDP, to meet growing threats worldwide.
"The last 18 months, the challenges we face have only grown: Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine," he said. "China's growing assertiveness, the destabilizing behavior of Iran and North Korea. All threaten to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division. Faced with this new reality it is more important than ever that we strengthen the resilience of our own countries."
Beijing has criticized the partnership and accuses Washington of "provoking rivalry and confrontation."
"This trilateral cooperation constitutes serious nuclear proliferation risks, undermines the international non-proliferation system, exacerbates arms race and hurts peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific," said Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry. "It has been widely questioned and opposed by regional countries and the wider international community. We urge the US, the UK and Australia to abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum games, honor international obligations in good faith and do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability."
But analysts say China's aggression in the Pacific region prompted this decision.
"This is really more a response to the very aggressive military buildup that China has had, as opposed to anything we're doing that would be provoking to China," Mark Kennedy, director of the Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition at the Wilson Center, told VOA.
Because the three countries are democracies and have free-speech protections, there are vocal critics — and analysts expect legislators in all three nations to probe the terms of the deal as it evolves and question its impact on sovereignty issues and government spending.
"There's criticism, as well there should be, of this deal everywhere because that's how democracies do policy, right?" Charles Edel, the inaugural Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA. "The ambitions are really, really large, but they're also very large bets that are being placed."
And, he said, it's a sign that Australia's ties with the U.S. are stronger than ever.
"The real importance here is that nuclear propulsion technology is truly the crown jewel of America's technological strength," he said. "We've only shared it once in all of American history, and that was almost four decades ago with the British, despite being asked by multiple countries. I think it's the closeness of the U.S.-Australian relationship, which makes this possible... That can only happen with countries where there is a very deep reservoir of trust."