China and France have reacted angrily to an agreement between the United States and Britain to help Australia develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet as part of a new trilateral security partnership focused on the Indo-Pacific region.
"We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve," U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday at a White House event announcing the pact. "Because the future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead."
The trio will be known by the acronym AUKUS.
Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressed that these nuclear-powered submarines will not carry nuclear weapons.
"Let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability," Morrison said, speaking virtually to the White House, along with his American and British counterparts. "And we will continue to meet all our nuclear nonproliferation obligations."
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters prior to the announcement set a timeline of 18 months for the three countries to work together to identify the optimal pathway for delivering the submarines.
Johnson said his country will play an important role in sharing knowledge with Australia, a former British colony that remains in the Commonwealth, an organization led by Queen Elizabeth II.
This agreement, he said, "will draw on the expertise that the U.K. has acquired over generations dating back to the launch of the Royal Navy's first nuclear submarine over 60 years ago."
The new partnership will allow the three countries to share information and expertise more easily in key technological areas such as artificial intelligence, cybertechnology, quantum technologies, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities.
"This initiative is about making sure that each of us has a modern capability, the most modern capabilities we need to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats," Biden said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian Thursday warned during a press briefing in Beijing the agreement “seriously undermines regional peace and stability.” He accused the three nations of engaging in “extremely irresponsible behavior” and urged them to “abandon their Cold War mentality.”
Morrison also announced that Australia nullified a $43 billion contract with France to acquire a dozen of the world’s largest conventional submarines in favor of the nuclear-powered submarines with American technology, noting U.S. technology was not available in 2016 when the contract was finalized.
Biden noted that this is a multilateral effort, and that the trio welcomes help from longtime allies. "The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we go forward," he said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian responded to the cancellation, telling Franceinfo radio network that Australia betrayed his country.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do,” Le Drian said. “I am angry and bitter. This isn't done between allies.”
Just two weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron voiced optimism about future relations with Australia while hosting Morrison at a time when France and Australia reconfirmed the deal.
“It's a stab in the back. We created a relationship of trust with Australia and that trust has been broken,” Le Drian said.
Relations between Trump and Macron deteriorated during Trump’s term in the White House. And some diplomats have voiced concerns in recent months that Biden is not being candid with America’s European allies.
Pushing back on China
Although none of the three leaders mentioned China in his remarks on Wednesday, analysts see this as another move by Western allies to push back on Beijing's rise in the military and technology arenas.
"It's already clear from the context that building for a high-intensity warfare environment — and that's what a submarine does — there is really only one clear potential adversary in that equation," said Euan Graham, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The deal, signed by countries that already share close ties, is a clear sign of Washington's intention to remain a dominant and stabilizing power in the region.
"The U.S. effectively is willing to share almost everything it has," said Professor Julian Ku, who focuses on international disputes and law at Hofstra University in New York. "It takes what's already a very deep alliance to another level."
The new fleet, which a Biden administration official described as having the characteristics of "stealth, speed, maneuverability, survivability," will have a broader range and can stay below the surface for long periods.
"Tactically, this will give Canberra an operational means to sustain undersea combat power for much longer durations throughout the western Pacific when compared to Australia's current diesel submarine," said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on Asia-Pacific security policy.
China's navy has a fleet of 60 submarines, which includes six nuclear-powered attack subs.