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Biden, UK to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines in further setback against China

The announcement came as part of a new trilateral partnership between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom that the leaders of the three countries will unveil jointly on Wednesday afternoon. Biden spoke Wednesday night from the White House on the new initiative.

The partnership is launching what is expected to be a wave of diplomatic commitments for Biden this fall, from next week’s United Nations meetings at the White House summit of Asian leaders to the Group of 20 talks in October in Italy.

At the basis of his efforts is a desire to rally the West and American partners in Asia in the battle between “autocracy versus democracy”, one of the defining objectives of his presidency. Biden has made the fight against China a central aspect of his foreign policy as tensions rise in the South China Sea and Taiwan, and has said he wants US allies on board.

The new partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia – three English-speaking maritime democracies – is not specifically about China, officials insisted ahead of the announcement. Instead, they said the three countries will hold a schedule of meetings over the next few months to coordinate on computer issues, advanced technology and defense in a bid to better respond to modern security challenges. The new partnership is called AUKUS, pronounced “aw-kiss”.

Yet it is the move towards establishing a nuclear submarine capability in Australia, which officials say will allow the country to operate at a much higher military level, that will be the focus of the announcement. Nuclear submarines are capable of maneuvering at higher speeds and endurance, and more stealth, than conventional submarines, which must surface more often.

“This allows Australia to play at a much higher level and increase American capabilities,” a senior administration official said ahead of the announcement. “It’s about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

“This technology is extremely sensitive”

Senior Australian officials were in Washington on Wednesday to meet with their counterparts, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, ahead of the official announcement. U.S. officials said details of the new partnership have been closely watched as they develop over the past few weeks and months, but other allies and government stakeholders will be made aware of the details in the months. next days.

The US and UK plan to send technical and strategic teams to identify the best route for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines over the next 18 months. The significance of the new plan for a $ 90 billion deal Australia has already struck with France for conventional submarines was unclear.

U.S. officials have described the effort to aid the country with nuclear propulsion as an extremely rare step among allies, undertaken only once before, which in some ways runs counter to established U.S. practice.

“This technology is extremely sensitive. It is, frankly, an exception to our policy in many ways,” the official said.

It was necessary, they said, to send a message of comfort to the countries of Asia. It comes amid mounting tensions between the United States and China, which are maneuvering to limit each other’s global influence.

US officials insisted that the intention of the new partnership was not to specifically challenge China.

“This partnership is not aimed or concerned with a single country, it is about advancing our strategic interests, upholding the rules-based international order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific”, the manager said.

Unite allies against China

Yet the announcement is the latest move by the United States to stave off China’s military and technological boom. Next week, Biden will host an in-person summit of the QUAD partnership of Japan, Australia and India – another group seen as a vehicle for asserting U.S. leadership in Asia. He has also sought to hire other Asian leaders, and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam late last month.

Last week, Biden had a 90-minute phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first direct communication in seven months. Officials described the conversation as “familiar” and “candid,” but said Biden had not directly addressed the new strategic partnership with Australia and the UK.

Biden on Tuesday denied reports that Xi, during their phone call, declined an invitation to meet in person. U.S. officials say they still hope to arrange a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, but aren’t sure it will happen on the sidelines of the G20 in late October. This is mainly because Xi has not confirmed that he will physically attend the summit, which is being held in Rome. Xi has not left China for about 600 days, since before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is possible that Xi will participate in the summit virtually, and US officials are not ruling out a virtual meeting between Biden and Xi. Biden, however, said face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders are better than virtual meetings or phone calls, telling assistants in private that he doesn’t think so much can be done in a remote meeting. .

Proof of engagement

After a chaotic pullout from Afghanistan that led to questions about Biden’s willingness to remain engaged overseas, officials said the new announcement should serve as proof of the president’s continued willingness to stand by its allies and to maintain a rules-based order in Asia.

“Over the past few years, questions have arisen: does the United States still have the stomach, do we have the spirit and the wisdom, that we want to continue playing this role? said a senior administration official.

“What President Biden is saying with this initiative is, ‘Count us in.’ We are all ready for a deeper and sustained commitment to the Indo-Pacific. And we recognize that one of our essential roles is in maintaining peace and stability there, ”the official continued.

Also hoping to play a bigger role in Asia, the UK, which, under the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has sought to pursue a “global Britain” strategy of engaging more overseas. This effort has at times failed, especially as Johnson works to contain the Covid-19 pandemic at home and to protect his country from the economic fallout of Brexit.

Still, US officials have received indications from their UK counterparts that the UK hopes to “dramatically step up its game in the Indo-Pacific”, and believe the new partnership with Australia can help advance that goal. .

Ahead of the announcement, Johnson undertook a major cabinet reshuffle, including reassigning his Foreign Secretary. The reshuffle does not appear to be directly related to his subsequent announcement with Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

U.S. officials said cooperation between the three countries was limited to nuclear propulsion only, and said Australia did not intend to research nuclear weapons.