Announcing details of a plan to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, US President Joe Biden hosted Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in San Diego on Monday
It comes amid growing concerns about China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
Monday’s plan represents the first project of the joint AUKUS security alliance first announced in 2021. It provides Australia with three US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines.
The multi-stage project would culminate with British and Australian production and operation of a new class of submarine — a “trilaterally developed” vessel based on Britain’s next-generation design that would be built in Britain and Australia and include “cutting edge” US technology.
Biden said it was part of the alliance’s, “shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The agreement will also see a force of US and British submarines deployed in Australia, to help train Australian crews and bolster deterrence.
Sunak says the partnership will eventually lead to the UK Royal Navy operating the same submarines as the Australian Navy, boats that will share the same components and parts as the US Navy.
According to China, AUKUS violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Beijing has argued the transfer of nuclear weapons materials from a nuclear-weapon state to a non-nuclear-weapon state was a “blatant” violation of the spirit of the pact.
Currently, no party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty other than the five countries the NPT recognizes as weapons states — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — has nuclear submarines.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing: “We urge the US, the UK and Australia to abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum games, honor international obligations in good faith and do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability.”
Biden stressed that the submarines are “nuclear powered, not nuclear armed.”
“These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind of them,” he said. “I don’t view what we’re doing as a challenge to anybody.”
AUKUS would be the first time Washington has shared nuclear-propulsion technology since the 1950s, when it partnered with Britain.
The Australian leader said Albanese said the agreement “represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defense capability in all of our history.”President Xi Jinping said Monday that China should develop its security and that it needed to modernize the military to create a “Great Wall of steel.”
“We must fully promote the modernization of national defense and the armed forces, and build the people’s armed forces into a ‘Great Wall of steel’ that effectively safeguards national sovereignty, security, and development interests,” he said.
Biden said “yes” when asked Monday if he would speak to Xi soon, but to another question as to whether he would tell journalists when they would talk, he replied “no.”
He last month said he expected to speak to Xi about what the so-called Chinese spy balloon spat.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting Sunak pledged to increase the UK’s defense spending by nearly 5 billion pounds (€5.6 billion or $6 billion) over the next two years.
“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, weaponization of energy and food supplies and irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, combined with China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, are threatening to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division,” Sunak said in a refresh of Britain’s blueprint for security and international policy that was also published on Monday.
Of Britain’s extra defense spending, 3 billion pounds would go towards nuclear projects, including help for the AUKUS plan to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia to counter China.
“It has pursued rapid and opaque military modernization with huge new investments, militarised disputed islands in the South China Sea, and refused to renounce the use of force to achieve its objectives with regard to Taiwan,” the UK policy document states.
On the sidelines of the AUKUS meeting, Sunak invited Biden to visit Northern Ireland in April to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of its peace accord, the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
“I know it’s something very special and personal to you,” Sunak said. “We’d love to have you over.”
Biden said it was his “intention” to go to both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The anniversary had been overshadowed in recent months after Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party boycotted the power-sharing assembly that made up part of the peace deal, to protest post-Brexit trade rules.