The three men made no mention of China. The rising Asian superpower was the driving force behind the fact that US President Joe Biden announced a “historic step” on Wednesday with British and Australian Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison. The US and UK will equip Australia with American technology for nuclear-powered submarines. This is still just a declaration of intent that will be followed by concrete plans over the next 18 months. But the three countries are serious: together they want to put China in its place in the South Pacific.
The move is historic because American submarine technology is one of the best-kept state secrets. So far, the USA has only allowed Great Britain to participate, following a treaty from 1958. Now Australia is joining the partnership which the three countries have named “Aukus”. The establishment of an Australian submarine fleet is also suitable for changing the balance of military forces in the disputed South Pacific in favor of the island continent and its western allies.
The move is therefore of strategic importance for the USA: They hope to strengthen their own position with the closer integration of Australia and Great Britain in the South Pacific without having to assume full responsibility or the full costs for it. The alliance “is not only intended to improve our capabilities in the South Pacific, but also to involve Europe, especially Great Britain, more closely in our strategy in the region,” said a senior US official on Wednesday. Aukus should also promote cooperation in the areas of cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum technology.
Nuclear powered submarines allow longer deployments without having to surface. This noticeably increases the combat value compared to conventionally operated machines. “The boats are calmer. They are stronger. They will allow us to maintain and improve deterrence in the South Pacific,” said the US official. He also avoided using the word “China” as much as possible. For security expert Eric Sayers from the American Enterprise Institute think tank, it is clear: “This is all about China,” as he did Sydney Morning Herald said.
Explosive geopolitical deal
The verbal tightrope walk of the Americans, British and Australians shows that they have recognized the geopolitical explosiveness of their deal. You don’t want to scare or provoke China additionally. Just a week ago, Biden had spoken to President Xi Jinping on the phone, but had not given him any specific information about the planned pact with Australia.
Biden, Morrison and Johnson now rushed to assure that Australia only wanted to buy nuclear-powered submarines, but was by no means aiming to build nuclear weapons. All three pledged to meet their obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The new submarine program in France arouses suspicion. Not only because archenemy Boris Johnson has achieved success in his endeavors to reposition his country as “Global Britain” after the break with the European Union. American officials on Wednesday already praised the new alliance as an important step on this path. For the French, it is even more difficult that Biden and Johnson screwed up a business of the century: In 2016, Australia ordered twelve submarines from the French Naval Group for around 50 billion euros. The work has been so delayed that none of the boats have yet been produced for Australia and the first copy for the French Navy has only just been launched.
Even so, the Australian prime minister assured French President Emmanuel Macron two months ago that he was sticking to the contract – only to call it off on Wednesday. This is all the more annoying for the French when they wanted to offer nuclear-powered machines in 2016, but the Australians deliberately refrained from doing so.
To what extent, after this maneuver, other European countries besides Great Britain can also be motivated for the American Pacific Initiative is open. The USA also wants to rely on its partners Japan, South Korea and the Philippines in the South Pacific. Recently, Biden wants to get in closer contact with Vietnam, Indonesia and India. The Americans have already made it clear that they will not share their nuclear technology for submarines with any other country.