Biden announces Indo-Pacific alliance with UK, Australia

Biden: Indo-Pacific alliance

U.S. President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the United States is forming a new Indo-Pacific security alliance with Britain and Australia that will allow for greater sharing of defence capabilities — including helping equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. It's a move that could deepen a growing chasm in U.S.-China relations.

Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared together virtually to detail the new alliance, which will be called AUKUS. The three announced they would quickly turn their attention to developing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.

"We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term," said Biden, who said the new alliance reflects a broader trend of key European partners playing a role in the Indo-Pacific. “We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve.”

The new security alliance is likely to be seen as a provocative move by China, which has repeatedly lashed out at Biden as he’s sought to refocus U.S. foreign policy on the Pacific in the early going of his presidency.

Before the announcement, a senior administration official sought to play down the idea that the alliance was meant to serve as a deterrent against China in the region. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement, said the alliance’s creation was not aimed at any one country, and is about a larger effort to sustain engagement and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific by the three nations.

Johnson said the alliance would allow the three English-speaking maritime democracies to strengthen their bonds and sharpen their focus on an increasingly complicated part of the world.

“We will have a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise, and perhaps most significant, the U.K., Australia and the U.S. will be joined even more closely together, " Johnson said.

The three countries have agreed to share information in areas including artificial intelligence, cyber and underwater defense capabilities.

But plans to support Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines are certain to catch Beijing's attention. To date, the only country that the United States has shared nuclear propulsion technology with is Britain. Morrison said Australia is not seeking to develop a nuclear weapons program and information sharing would be limited to helping it develop a submarine fleet.

The Australian prime minister said plans for the nuclear-powered submarines would be developed over the next 18 months and the vessels would be built in Adelaide, Australia.

Australia had announced in 2016 that French company DCNS had beat out bidders from Japan and Germany to build the next generation of submarines in Australia’s largest-ever defense contract.

Top French officials made clear they were unhappy with the deal, which undercuts the DCNS deal.

“The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and defense minister Florence Parly said in a joint statement.

Morrison said the three countries had “always seen through a similar lens,” but, as the world becomes more complex, “to meet these new challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level.”

Matt Pottinger, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration, said that equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines was a significant step that would help the U.S. and its allies on the military and diplomatic fronts.

Underwater warfare capabilities have been Beijing’s "Achilles' heel,” Pottinger said. A nuclear-powered submarine fleet would allow Australia to conduct longer patrols, giving the new alliance a stronger presence in the region.

“When you have a strong military, it provides a backdrop of deterrence that gives countries the confidence to resist bullying,” said Pottinger, who is now a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “Part of the problem right now is that Beijing has gotten rather arrogant and it’s been less willing to engage productively in diplomacy.”

The announcement of the new security alliance comes as the U.S.-China relationship has deteriorated. Beijing has taken exception to Biden administration officials repeatedly calling out China over human rights abuses in Xianjing province, the crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong, and cybersecurity breaches originating from China, as well as Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and what the White House has labeled as “coercive and unfair” trade practices.

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