Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
To a rare extent, President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States is considering sharing its nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia.
The announcement comes as Biden attempts to refocus U.S. national security and economic policy on the threat posed by China.
There has been only one other time that the United States has shared what a senior administration official described as “extremely sensitive” technology – over 60 years ago, in 1958, with Great Britain. The UK will be involved in the new trilateral security partnership, known as AUKUS.
The move comes amid escalating tensions in recent years over territorial disputes in the South China Sea – a major seaway with oil and natural gas resources – with China building military outposts on several small recovered islands. The United States and other regional partners have increased their military presence in the region, and the United States is reorienting its military position towards the Indo-Pacific.
Before the official White House announcement, a senior US administration official insisted to reporters that the new security cooperation with Australia was not specifically aimed at China.
“I think one of the things the United States has done most effectively in the Indo-Pacific is to ensure peace and stability and to be the ultimate guarantor of this rules-based order,” the senior official said. “Over the past few years, questions have arisen: Does the United States still have the belly? Do we have the spirit and the wisdom that we want to continue in this role? What President Biden says with this initiative is: ‘Count us in.’ “
It’s about nuclear propulsion, not nuclear weapons
The three AUKUS countries will launch an 18-month effort to determine how best to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology, which will allow Australian Navy submarines to travel faster and further, with more stealth.
“Australia does not intend to search for nuclear weapons,” the official told reporters.
The Biden administration is working to overcome the 20-year war in Afghanistan and the chaotic US exit from Kabul. Biden has placed the fight against China at the center of his economic and national security efforts, describing it as the greatest challenge of the time.
Australian Prime Minister to visit next week
Biden is expected to meet in person at the White House next week with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia – the so-called “Quad.”
He invited the leaders of Japan and South Korea as the first two foreign leaders to visit the White House in person earlier this year. And his first overseas trip in June to the Group of Seven and NATO also focused on the economic and security threats posed by China.
For only the second time since taking office, Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. He did not discuss the new security partnership “in specific terms,” the senior US official said, but stressed to Xi that the US plans to play an important role in the region.