President Biden and the leaders of Australia and the UK announced a new military agreement on Wednesday aimed at countering China. The pact, known as AUKUS, will focus on the sharing of sensitive military technologies, and the first initiative will focus on getting Australia nuclear-powered submarines.
US officials speaking to CNN described the effort to share nuclear propulsion with another country as an “exceedingly rare step” due to the sensitivity of the technology. “This technology is extremely sensitive. This is, frankly, an exception to our policy in many respects,” one unnamed official said.
Australia is not a nuclear-armed state, and the submarines are not expected to carry nuclear arms. In a joint statement, the three countries said they were committed to “non-proliferation,” but that is not exactly true. Earlier this year, the British announced that they are increasing their nuclear stockpile and setting their cap of nuclear warheads at 260, up from the current limit of 180.
Strengthening cooperation with allies in the Pacific is a key part of the Biden administration’s anti-China strategy, and Canberra is eager to play along. Australia is also a member of the Quad, a security dialogue that also includes the US, Japan, and India, which is seen as a foundation for a possible NATO-style alliance in Asia. Biden will host the first in-person summit between Quad leaders later this month.
A Biden administration official claimed AUKUS is “not aimed at any one country,” but the rhetoric makes it clear the effort is aimed at China. The three countries said they share a commitment to the so-called “international rules-based order,” a common phrase used by Biden officials to describe the US-led world order that they see Beijing as a threat to.
Australia’s defense minister met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington on Tuesday. Discussing the meeting, Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said the US shares Australia’s concerns over the “aggressive behavior, the coercive and intimidating activities that the Chinese are making throughout the region.” Kirby reiterated that China is currently the Pentagon’s primary focus.