(Bloomberg) --

Australia is on track to make an announcement “in the first part of next year” on the path to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under its project with the US and the UK, Defense Minister Richard Marles said.

“You don’t build a nuclear-powered submarine quickly, and so the question of when we would be able to have the first submarine in the water is one that is very pertinent to us,” Marles said Saturday at a joint news conference with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after talks in Honolulu.

Australia, the UK and the US announced a security agreement known as AUKUS on Sept. 15, 2021, pledging to cooperate more closely on defense and research. Under the deal, the US and the UK agreed to work with Australia to help construct and maintain a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, expanding Australia’s military reach in the Asia-Pacific region.

“It was great with Secretary Austin to affirm the progress there,” Marles said.

While extending the life of its existing, non-nuclear subs, Australia is seeking to “minimize and plug any capability gap,” Marles said. The announcement will involve a timeline for the arrival of the nuclear-powered models and how to bridge any capability gap, he said.

Austin renewed US warnings of China’s expanding role, citing “a growing challenge from autocratic countries” in the region and globally.

“We’re deeply concerned by China’s aggressive, escalatory and destabilizing military activities in the Taiwan Strait and else where in the region,” he said. 

Marles said China is seeking “to shape the world around it a way that we have not seen before,” posing a challenge for countries seeking “seeking to uphold the global rules-based order,” including freedom of the seas. 

The AUKUS agreement has been criticized by some of Australia’s neighbors, with China in particular escalating its concerns to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Beijing argued that the agreement to give Australia nuclear submarine technology breached international non-proliferation treaties.

After IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said he was satisfied with the AUKUS partners’ engagement so far, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning accused the agency of turning “a blind eye” to international concerns.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.