On Monday, President Joe Biden will meet with the prime ministers of Australia and Britain at a naval base in California to discuss a possible deal to purchase nuclear submarines, which would help stabilize the Asia-Pacific region in the face of a rising China.
Almost two years after forming AUKUS, an alliance between Australia and the United Kingdom and the United States with the primary goal of bringing Australia into the fold of navies possessing nuclear-powered submarines, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will join Biden at the base in San Diego.
While Australia has publicly stated that it will not use nuclear weapons, the acquisition of the nuclear-powered vessels will significantly alter Australia’s role in a US-led project to preserve the Pacific’s decades-long status quo of balance of power.
US media reports that Biden will announce a multi-year plan to make Australia a full partner in fielding top-secret US nuclear technology previously shared only with historic ally Britain.
The Washington Post reported that the United States could sell Australia up to five nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines within the next decade. The two countries would then begin development on a new class of submarine, the SSN-AUKUS, powered by American technology and due for delivery in the 2040s.
The plan is ambitious and will take years to implement, but it comes as Australia and the US consider China’s rapid military expansion, which includes the construction of a sophisticated naval fleet and the transformation of artificial islands into offshore bases.
Australia was planning to purchase a $66 billion package of French submarines that are also conventionally powered to replace its aging fleet of diesel-powered submarines.
Canberra’s sudden announcement that it was withdrawing from that agreement and joining the AUKUS project sparked a brief but unusually furious row between the three countries and their close ally France.
Australia’s goal now is to take advantage of the superior US and, later, US-British underwater vessels that can remain submerged for extended periods of time and fire off potent cruise missiles.
The Virginia class submarines are nearly twice as long and can carry 132 crew members, rather than the Collins class’ 48, which Australia plans to retire.
Even though Australia has stated that it will not acquire nuclear weapons, China has warned that AUKUS could spark an arms race and has accused the three countries of hindering efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia should “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,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing.
China’s communist leader, Xi Jinping, made a fiery statement last week in which he accused the United States of leading a Western effort to “contain, encircle, and suppress” China.
In contrast, according to the United States, Beijing’s threats to invade Taiwan’s self-governing democracy and its emphasis on the threat from nuclear-armed North Korea are alarming countries across the Asia-Pacific.