(Bloomberg) -- Australia has fought alongside the U.S. in every major war over the past century, on battlefields from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Germany. Now Washington is looking to make its ally Down Under a more integral part of its strategy to counter a growing threat from China in Pacific waters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined with U.S. President Joe Biden and the U.K.’s Boris Johnson on Wednesday night to announce a new security partnership that will allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. While it could take more than a decade for Australia to build one, the agreement shows the U.S. joining with key English-speaking allies to form a more cohesive defense arrangement to offset China’s rising military prowess.
“This is the biggest surprise in Australian geopolitics in decades,” said John Blaxland, a former intelligence officer who’s now a professor in international security at the Australian National University. “The subs deal shows the U.S. now sees the utility of bolstering Australia’s capabilities to complement its own in a way it never did before.”
The move will elevate Australia into an elite club of only a handful of nations that operate nuclear-powered submarines, which can travel long distances without the need to refuel. They would complement plans by the U.S., Britain and other nations to deter Chinese aggression against Japan and Taiwan to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Relations between the U.S. and China have remained tense, with a phone call last week between leaders Joe Biden and Xi Jinping failing to produce a breakthrough on disputes regarding climate change, tariffs and exports of high-tech goods. Beijing has also sparred with the U.K. over Hong Kong and Australia over a probe into the origins of the coronavirus.
“The pact itself also speaks to a significant change to the geostrategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific,” Blaxland added. He said it was “linked to the post-Brexit re-engagement of the U.K. in the region, the more belligerent stance of Xi’s China, and a greater concern about the precariousness of American military power and its ability to deter or win a potential conflict in the Pacific.”
Rifts Among Allies
While the deal strengthens bonds between Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., it caused a rift with two other allies: France and New Zealand, which has a longstanding policy to exclude nuclear-powered vessels from its waters. The deal automatically scuppers a 2016 agreement with French military shipbuilder Naval Group to build up to 12 submarines, a project with a price tage of an estimated A$90 billion ($66 billion).
France issued a terse statement, saying the decision was “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed” between the nations. France’s Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly also took aim at Biden: “The American choice to exclude a European ally” from the three-way deal “shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”
Hours later in Canberra, Morrison told reporters that he understood France’s disappointment and hoped President Emmanuel Macron could “‘move past what is obviously a very difficult and disappointing decision.” Still, he said that the situation had changed drastically since 2016.
“These are game-changing differences in the technology and the opportunity that Australia has,” Morrison said. “But there have also been game-changing developments in the strategic circumstances of our region, which continue to accelerate at a pace even not envisaged as little as five years ago.”
After the U.S.’s humbling retreat in Afghanistan, the new pact will help Biden’s efforts to show American resolve over China in the Asia-Pacific region. Next week the president will host the first face-to-face meeting in the White House of leaders from Quad nations, which includes Australia as well as Japan and India.
Morrison has received praise for the deal at home, particularly as he pushes back against Chinese trade reprisals, including crippling tariffs on Australian barley and wine and restrictions on coal shipments. The Australian leader has helped turn the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network -- including the U.S., U.K., Canada and New Zealand -- into a group that regularly criticizes China’s human-rights record.
Morrison said he had further calls with allies around the region after announcing the partnership, which he would extend to China despite growing tensions between the two countries that have put ministerial-level ties in a deep freeze. “There’s an open invitation for President Xi to discuss other matters,” he said.
While it could be a long time before Australia builds a nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S. could potentially transfer one into Australian waters for training before then, according to Paul Maddison, former commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.
“The capability these subs offer is exactly what Australia needs in terms of endurance, range and stealth,” said Maddison, who is now director of the University of New South Wales Defence Research Institute. “But it’s no small thing to introduce nuclear propulsion into the order of battle. It will require a skillset that simply doesn’t exist in Australia.”
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