Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines as first initiative of AUKUS
Australia, the UK and the US have announced a new trilateral security partnership against the backdrop of China’s assertive actions across the Indo-Pacific, with the grouping’s first initiative aimed at equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among key world leaders that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on Wednesday to inform them of the new partnership before it was formally unveiled at a virtual conference of the leaders of the three countries. Morrison also spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and was due to call leaders of several regional countries on Thursday.
Modi said in a tweet he and Morrison had “exchanged perspectives on regional developments” and the upcoming Quad Summit. The two leaders also reviewed progress in the bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership and the recent 2+2 ministerial dialogue. Australian foreign minister Marise Payne too made a phone call to her Indian counterpart S Jaishankar before the announcement.
The creation of the new alliance called AUKUS will build on the existing and strong security cooperation between the three members of the grouping, though it could be seen as a provocation by China. Relations between the three members of AUKUS and China are already strained over a range of issues, including trade disputes, Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and human rights violations in Hong Kong.
The most significant aspect of the new security partnership was its first initiative – a move to develop nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, which has never operated such vessels.
“As the first initiative under AUKUS, recognising our common tradition as maritime democracies, we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy,” said a joint statement issued by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden.
The leaders said they would “embark on a trilateral effort of 18 months to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability”. The partnership will leverage expertise from the US and the UK, building on submarine programmes of these two countries, to “bring an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date”.
The development of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines will be a joint endeavour between the three countries, with the “focus on interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit”.
The UK said in a statement that the design and build process for the submarine initiative will create hundreds of scientific and engineering roles across Britain, and drive investment in high-tech sectors.
Australia committed itself to the “highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety, and security of nuclear material and technology”, and said it would fulfil all its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state, including with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
However, the nuclear-powered submarine initiative led to the scrapping of Australia’s $90-billion programme to build up to 12 French-designed submarines and triggered an angry response from the French government. The Australian government had concluded the country’s largest defence deal for the submarines with French company Naval Group in 2016.
France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and defence minister Florence Parly said in a joint statement that the decision was contrary to the letter and the spirit of cooperation between France and Australia, based on a relationship of political trust.
Australia’s decision to go with the American choice leads to the removal of an ally and a European partner from a relationship at a time of “unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region”, and “marks an absence of coherence that France can only...regret”, the two ministers said in the statement.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jessica Ardern said shortly after the announcement regarding the AUKUS alliance that Australian nuclear-powered submarines would be banned from her country’s waters in line with a long-standing policy on such vessels.
The cooperation between the US and Australia through AUKUS is also expected to build on the initiatives the two countries are engaged in under the framework of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, which includes India and Japan. The first in-person summit of Quad leaders is scheduled to be held in Washington on September 24.
AUKUS also dovetails with the Boris Johnson government’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific under a comprehensive revamp of foreign and security policies in order to unlock new opportunities across the region. The UK’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy was unveiled in March and was followed by the first operational deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific.
Australia is now set to join an elite group of only six countries – India, the US, the UK, France, Russia and China – that operate nuclear-powered submarines. It will also be the only country to have such submarines without having a civilian nuclear power industry.
“The United States has only ever shared [nuclear-powered submarine] technology with the United Kingdom, so the fact that Australia is now joining this club indicates that the United States is prepared to take significant new steps and break with old norms to meet the China challenge,” Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security programme and a former senior strategic analyst in Australia’s key intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, wrote in a piece on Thursday.
“Australia cannot have this capability while assuming that it does not come with heightened expectations that Australia will take America’s side in any dispute with China,” Roggeveen added.
AUKUS will also work to support a rules-based international order and to defend the shared interests of the three countries in the Indo-Pacific. The three sides will also enhance technology sharing and foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains.
The alliance will also enhance trilateral collaboration focused on joint capabilities and interoperability, including cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities.