Nuclear Submarine Deal Will Reshape Indo-Pacific Relations

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
September 16, 2021 Updated: September 16, 2021

WELLINGTON, New Zealand—The United States, Britain, and Australia have announced they’re forming a new security alliance that will help equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. The alliance will see a reshaping of relations in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Here’s what it might mean for various players:

United States

Ten years ago under President Barack Obama, the United States began discussing the need to focus more attention on the Indo-Pacific region while pivoting away from conflicts in the Middle East.

Under President Joe Biden, the United States has now withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan while finding that tensions with China have only grown.

In the Pacific, the United States and others have been concerned about China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and its antipathy toward Japan, Taiwan, and Australia.

In announcing the deal, none of the three leaders mentioned China, although the alliance was seen as a provocative move by the Chinese communist regime. The United States had previously only shared the nuclear propulsion technology with Britain. Biden said it was about ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term.

submarine US Navy
The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Illinois (SSN 786) returns home to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam from a deployment in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility on Sept. 13, 2021. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro/U.S. Navy via AP)

Britain

Leaving the European Union under Brexit has left Britain seeking to reassert its global position. Part of that has been an increased focus—or tilt—toward the Indo-Pacific.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new alliance would allow the three nations to sharpen their focus on an increasingly complicated part of the world. He said that perhaps most significantly, it would bond the three nations even more closely together.

Australia

Under the arrangement, Australia will build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines using U.S. expertise, while dumping a contract with France for diesel-electric subs. Experts say the nuclear subs will allow Australia to conduct longer patrols and give the alliance a stronger military presence in the region.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had called the leaders of Japan and India to explain the new alliance. Japan, India, Australia and the United States already have a strategic dialogue known as “the Quad.” Biden is set to host fellow Quad leaders at the White House next week.

France

Australia told France it would end its contract with state majority-owned DCNS to build 12 of the world’s largest conventional submarines. The contract was worth tens of billions of dollars. France is furious, demanding explanations from all sides.

“It was really a stab in the back. We built a relationship of trust with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on France-Info radio.

China

The Chinese regime said the alliance would severely damage regional peace and stability, and jeopardize efforts to halt nuclear weapon proliferation. It said it was “highly irresponsible” for the United States and Britain to export the nuclear technology, and that Australia was to blame for a breakdown in bilateral relations.

Beijing has been unhappy with the Biden administration calling it out over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, the clampdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong, and cybersecurity breaches. Biden spoke by phone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last week. After the call, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that Xi expressed concerns that U.S. government policy toward China has caused “serious difficulties” in relations.

New Zealand

Left out of the new alliance is Australia’s neighbor New Zealand. It has a longstanding nuclear-free policy that includes a ban on nuclear-powered ships entering its ports. That stance has sometimes been a sticking point in otherwise close relations with the United States.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand wasn’t asked to be part of the alliance and wouldn’t have expected an invitation. Still, it leaves New Zealand out of a deal to share a range of information including artificial intelligence, cyber, and underwater defense capabilities.