The US announced a new alliance on September 15 with Australia and Britain to strengthen military capabilities, including a new Australian nuclear submarine fleet and cruise missiles.
The announcement of the alliance – made in a video meeting by President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his British counterpart Boris Johnson – was met with swift pushback from France, which has been negotiating a multi-billion-dollar sale of conventional submarines to Australia.
Biden said the partnership – dubbed AUKUS – would enable Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines and ensure that they had “the most modern capabilities we need to manoeuvre and defend against rapidly evolving threats”.
The submarines, stressed Biden and the other leaders, will not be nuclear armed, only powered with nuclear reactors.
Morrison later announced Australia would also acquire long-range US Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The Australian leader noted: “Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific. This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures.”
Johnson said they would work “hand in glove to preserve stability and security in the Indo-Pacific”.
Technical and naval representatives from the three countries will spend the next 18 months deciding how to carry out Australia’s upgrade, which Johnson said would be “one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world, lasting for decades”.
In addition to the submarine fleet, a senior Biden administration official said AUKUS will combine forces on “cyber, AI – particularly applied AI – quantum technologies and some undersea capabilities as well”.
The Biden administration official underlined repeatedly how “unique” the decision is, with Britain being the only other country the US has ever helped to build a nuclear fleet.
“This technology is extremely sensitive,” the official said. “We view this as a one-off.”
The creation of AUKUS, with its focus on submarines, is “meant to send a message of reassurance and a determination to maintain a strong deterrent stance”, the US official said.
Even if not carrying nuclear weapons, the new submarines will allow Australia to “play at a much higher level”, the official said. “Nuclear powered submarines really maintain superior characteristics of stealth, speed, manoeuvrability, survivability and really substantial endurance.”
“You will see much deeper interoperability along our navies and our nuclear infrastructure,” the official said. “This is a fundamental decision, fundamental. It binds Australia … and the United States and Great Britain for generations.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on September 16 said her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison had briefed her on Canberra’s plan to develop nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the US and Britain.
She described the deal as “primarily around technology and defence hardware”, playing down implications for the so-called “Five Eyes” partnership of the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
“This arrangement in no way changes our security and intelligence ties with these three countries, as well as Canada,” the New Zealand leader said in a statement.
But she also said New Zealand would maintain a ban on nuclear-powered vessels that dates back to 1985, meaning Wellington will not allow the prized naval asset being developed by Australia into its waters.
“New Zealand’s position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged,” Ardern said.
The ban was introduced in the wake of French nuclear testing in the Pacific and led to the US navy banning its warships from entering New Zealand ports for more than 30 years.
The destroyer USS Sampson visited in late 2016 but only after the then-prime minister John Key gave a special exemption, saying he was “100 per cent confident” the vessel was not nuclear powered or carrying nuclear weapons.
Official US policy is to neither confirm nor deny whether its vessels are nuclear-capable.
Meanwhile, Biden, in an attempt to placate Paris, said France is a “key partner and ally” in the Indo-Pacific.
But the new alliance torpedoed Australia’s conventional submarine deal with France, which had been personally backed by President Emmanuel Macron.
Morrison confirmed on the morning of September 16 that Australia would not proceed with the deal.
France’s foreign ministry said in a statement earlier that the decision to go with US submarines was “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia”.
The submarine contract with France was worth around A$50 billion (US$36.5 billion) at the time of signing. More recently the overall deal was estimated at some A$90 billion, taking into account currency fluctuations and cost overruns.
The company had agreed to build 12 conventional Attack Class subs, but the order was years behind schedule, well over budget and has become tangled in Australian domestic politics.
Morrison will join Biden again on September 24, this time in person, at a first White House gathering of the “Quad” diplomatic group – Australia, India, Japan and the US.