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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

How a Western Military Pact for Nuclear Subs Affects China

By Ralph Jennings September 20, 2021

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia on Thursday announced what the Royal Australian Navy describes on its website as an "enhanced trilateral security partnership" known as AUKUS (Australia, U.K. and U.S.). It says Australia will get at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, to be built domestically using American technology.

The use of nuclear-powered Australian submarines in the Indo-Pacific has angered China by threatening to curb its expansion in the same waterways, experts say.

The three-country security deal came after Australia pulled out of an earlier deal with France for diesel-electric submarines, angering Paris. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian even went as far as to describe Australia's decision to back out of the deal as a "stab in the back." On Friday, France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia.

Analysts point to the partnership as the latest Western effort to vie with China for control over seas that Beijing calls its own despite territorial spats with other Asian governments, including Western allies. One disputed waterway is the resource-rich South China Sea.

Nuclear-powered submarines mean stealthier, faster-moving vessels, while Britain's participation suggests a wider program and not just another U.S.-led effort targeting China, scholars say. The subs are expected to be ready by 2035.

"Operationally, it should bother the Chinese, because if Australia does get nuclear subs, then it can stay on station in places like the South China Sea or East China Sea for more or less permanent deployments," said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Submarines won't come online right away, he said, but for the first five to 10 years, what is important is "what (the partnership) says about Australia's posture and willingness to stand up to China and whatever the posture changes are for the U.S.," Poling said. Washington might eventually increase military rotations and exercises with Canberra, he said.

China's maritime conflicts

Beijing claims about 90% of the South China Sea, where it has angered Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines by building artificial islets and passing ships through the contested waters. It vies with Japan over sovereignty in parts of the adjoining East China Sea.

Western countries have taken new notice of their former Cold War foe as the Chinese navy grows rapidly and its ships turn up as far away as Alaska.

AUKUS calls for the sharing of military-related automation, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. Quantum technology can help detect submarines and stealth aircraft. Australia, Britain and the United States have committed to a "comprehensive program of work" over the next 18 months, the Australian navy says.

'Worst possible contingencies'

Nuclear-powered subs based in Australia could reach the South China Sea in a day and stay indefinitely, said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. Alternatively, they might enter the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea or Southwest Pacific, he added.

He said Australia, in pitched political and trade fights with China since 2015, intends to help the United States defend any Chinese movement that's "inimical" to Australian allies.

"These subs are primarily to boost Australian defenses against a rising China that is challenging not only the U.S. in the region but also all our countries, including Australia, and there is a growing military challenge from China that is very real, and we are preparing for all sorts of worst possible contingencies, including the prospect for a major power war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan some time in this decade," Davis said.

China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and regularly sends military planes into its airspace. Taiwan's government, opposed to unification with China, has found growing support from the West.

"Taiwan will have a side (of its population) that cries out, 'That's great. England, America and Australia are coming to do a check and balance against China,' said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

British officials joined the tech-sharing deal as part of their "idea of global Britain" following their departure from the European Union, Poling said. Its participation as a non-Indo-Pacific country angers China particularly, Huang said.

AUKUS follows other Western-spearheaded efforts such as the 16-year-old Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among India, Japan, Australia and the United States. Western-allied countries periodically pass ships through the South China Sea on their own. China normally protests.

Stern words, deeds in China

China calls the AUKUS deal a danger to the Indo-Pacific region. "For the United States, U.K. and Australia to launch nuclear submarine cooperation severely disrupts regional peace and stability, increases the arms buildup race and wrecks the hard work of international disarmament," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday.

Asia's chief superpower isn't standing by either. On September 1, China implemented its Revised Maritime Safety Traffic Law to counter foreign ships that pass near its coasts. The law tightens Chinese control over the East and South China seas by giving Beijing power to stop a range of foreign vessels.

"The United States Navy, if it was ordered to conduct a freedom of navigation (operation), that just sets up a confrontation, because how are you going to stop an American warship?" said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

China could follow up AUKUS further by restricting additional Australian imports, Davis said. Canberra, however, has already found new foreign markets for its all-important coal and wine because of earlier friction with China.

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