President Joe Biden meets on Monday with the leaders of Australia and Britain at a California naval base for an expected announcement of a nuclear submarines deal aimed at strengthening Western military muscle in the face of a rising China.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will join Biden at the base in San Diego 18 months after their countries formed an alliance called AUKUS with the principal goal of bringing Australia into the fold of navies possessing nuclear-powered submarines.
While Australia has ruled out deploying atomic weapons, its acquisition of the nuclear-powered vessels will transform its role in a US-led project to maintain the decades-old balance of power in the Pacific.
According to US media, Biden will announce a long-term, multi-stage plan destined to make Australia a full partner in fielding top-secret US nuclear technology previously only shared with historic ally Britain.
As many as five Virginia-class US nuclear-powered submarines will be sold to Australia over the next decade, The Washington Post reported. Australia and Britain would then both embark on building a new submarine model, using US propulsion technology and dubbed the SSN-AUKUS, with delivery in the 2040s.
While the plan will require years to come to fruition, it marks an ambitious shift from Australia and the United States as they contemplate the rapid expansion of Chinese military power, including Beijing’s building up a sophisticated naval fleet and turning artificial islands into offshore bases.
In the face of growing challenges from China – and Russia’s invasion of pro-Western Ukraine – Britain is also moving to beef up its military capabilities.
More than $6 billion additional funding over the next two years will “replenish and bolster vital ammunition stocks, modernize the UK’s nuclear enterprise and fund the next phase of the AUKUS submarine program,” Downing Street said Monday.
Longer-term spending increases for the defense budget are being considered, it said.
Diplomatic spat with France
Australia had previously been on track to replace its aging fleet of diesel-powered submarines with a $66 billion package of French vessels, also conventionally powered.
The abrupt announcement by Canberra that it was backing out of that deal and entering the AUKUS project sparked a brief but unusually furious row between all three countries and their close ally France.
Australia is now looking to wield the technologically superior US and, later, US-British underwater vessels, which will be able to stay submerged almost indefinitely and launch powerful cruise missiles.
Compared to the Collins-class submarines due to be retired by Australia, the Virginia-class is almost twice as long and carries 132 crew, not 48.
Although Australia rules out acquiring its own nuclear weapons, China warned that AUKUS risked setting off an arms race and accused the three countries of setting back nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
“We urge the US, the UK and Australia to abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum games, honor international obligations in good faith and do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing.
The communist country’s leader Xi Jinping made a fiery statement last week accusing the United States of leading a Western effort at “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
But Washington says Beijing is alarming countries across the Asia-Pacific with its threats to invade the self-governing democracy of Taiwan, as well as highlighting the threat from nuclear-armed North Korea.
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