The Joe Biden administration took an important step on Wednesday to challenge the broad claims China’s territorial assets in the Pacific, announcing that the United States and Britain will help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines, increasing the Western presence in the region.
If the plan comes to fruition, Australia could start to implement routine patrols that would cross areas of the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its exclusive zone, and reach the north of Taiwan.
The announcement, made by President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, marks an important step for Australia, which until a few years ago he was reluctant to directly counterattack China’s core interests.
However, Australia feels more and more threatened and three years ago it was one of the first countries to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from accessing its networks.
Now, with the prospect of deploying a new fleet of submarines, Australia would become a much stronger actor in the US-led alliance in the Pacific.
The vessels are equipped with nuclear propulsion They offer unlimited range and operate so quietly that they are difficult to detect.
For Johnson, the new defense deal would reinforce his effort to develop a “Global Britain” strategy. centered on the Pacific, the next step after Brexit removed the country from the European Union.
“It’s about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet current and future threats,” Biden said in the East Room, flanked by two screens showing the British and Australian leaders on their wheels. remote press. “It’s about connecting current US allies and partners in new ways“.
Biden and Morrison said Australia will not arm nuclear-armed submarines. Australia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits it from acquiring or deploying nuclear weapons.
Submarines are almost certainly will carry cruise missiles conventional launched from a submarine.
“Let me be clear: Australia does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civilian nuclear capability,” Morrison said.
However, even conventionally armed submarines manned by Australian sailors could upset the balance of naval power in the Pacific.
“Attack submarines are a great business, and they send a great message, “said Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the use of nuclear weapons and delivery systems among major powers.” This was hard to imagine five years ago, and it would have been impossible 10 years ago. . And that says a lot about China’s behavior in the region”.
In Australia, some strategists viewed the measure as a momentous change.
A new cold war in Asia
“The Australian decision to go this route is not just a decision to go for a nuclear powered submarine,” said Hugh White, a professor at the Australian National University and a former Australian defense official.
“It is a decision to deepen and consolidate our strategic alignment with the United States against China“.
He added: “This only deepens the feeling that we have a new Cold War in Asia and that Australia is betting that in this new Cold War, the United States will be victorious. “
The announcement is the latest move in an American strategy to deal with China’s economic, military and technological expansion. carried out by Biden; his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; and its coordinator for Asia, Kurt Campbell.
In the past eight months, they have blocked technology acquisition key by China, including materials for semiconductor production; they have urged countries to reject Huawei; they have approached positions with Taiwan; and they have denounced China’s repression in Hong Kong.
Next week, Biden will gather at the White House the leaders of the “Quadrilateral” – an informal association made up of the United States, Japan, India and Australia – to celebrate. a meeting in person, another way to demonstrate common determination in dealing with Beijing.
Last week, Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping for about 90 minutes, the second time the two leaders have spoken since Biden took office.
Were revealed few details of the conversation, so it is not clear if Biden advised his Chinese counterpart of the move with Australia. But Beijing would not have been surprised; Earlier, the Australians had announced an agreement with France to acquire less sophisticated submarines technologically. That deal fell through.
However, the decision of share naval jet technology, Even with a close ally, it was a major move for Biden, one that is sure to elicit protests from China and questions from US allies and non-proliferation experts.
The last time the United States shared nuclear propulsion technology with an ally was in 1958, in a similar deal with Britain, administration officials said.
“There is a shared understanding that we need strengthen deterrence and be truly prepared to fight a conflict if it does occur, “said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund, a political think tank.” It reflects the growing concern over Chinese military capabilities and intentions. “
The nuclear reactors that power American and British submarines use highly enriched bomb grade uranium, a holdover from the Cold War era designs.
And for two decades, Washington has been on a campaign to phase out reactors around the world that use bomb-grade fuel, replacing them with fuel. less dangerous to limit the risk of proliferation.
The movement gained momentum after the September 11 attacks. President Barack Obama organized a series of “nuclear summits” for world leaders, used to pressure nations to withdraw from service the old reactors They used highly enriched uranium, so that the fuel could never fall into the hands of terrorists.
But the agreement with Australia seems almost certain that will go in the other direction: Australia is likely to feed its submarines highly enriched uranium, because for now no choice.
Aware of the contradiction, the administration officials present the decision as an exception”, although they would not do it with other important allies. This includes South Korea, which in past decades was caught building its own nuclear arsenal. Australia has been a leader in the non-proliferation movement.
The last of its kind
A senior administration official deeply involved in the deal negotiations said Wednesday that the United States had not made a deal like this. in decades and that, “after today, we are not likely to do it again.”
Officials said details will be worked out in the next 18 months, including strict controls on nuclear technology. They said Australia had already agreed not to produce the highly enriched fuel, meaning it will likely buy it from American reserves.
The Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, will lead the administration in the partnership, which also involves the collaboration in cyber technology and artificial intelligence.
The United States has studied the possibility of abandoning highly enriched uranium. A study by the Pentagon’s top nuclear advisory group concluded in 2019 that the United States should switch to reactors that burn low-enriched uranium, which cannot be easily diverted for use in weapons. But that process, the experts concluded, couldn’t begin until after 2040.
There will be many who will say that we are giving Australians a gateway drug to nuclear capability“Narang said.” It is not something we would let other important allies do, let alone help make it possible. “
But the China’s aggressive tactics in the Pacific and the United States’ desire to ensure Taiwan’s security required the United States to empower Australia, even if that meant an exception to the effort to reduce the use of weapons-grade nuclear fuel, according to Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary for strategy at the United States. defense and development of forces.
“If nonproliferation has to take a backseat, that’s the right decision,” Colby said.
Australia has been, for more than seven decades, member of the “Five Eyes”, the intelligence alliance that includes the main English-speaking victors of World War II. The other four are the United States, Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand. They regularly exchange information on cyber threats and a number of terrorist threats.
Por David E. Sanger y Zolan Kanno-Youngs, The New York Times