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The United States will share nuclear technology with Australia

The United States will arm Australia with nuclear submarine technology as part of a new defense partnership announced Wednesday, one of many steps President Biden is taking to strengthen alliances as a shield against China.

The agreement covers the United Kingdom, and it will also involve closer cooperation on cyber security and artificial intelligence. The centerpiece, however, is the decision to make Australia one of a handful of nations to trap submarines powered by nuclear reactors.

“Our nations will update and improve our common ability to address the threats of the 21st century, just as we did in the 20th century – together,” said Biden of the White House, flanked by video screens featuring Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson from the United Kingdom.

Morrison described it as a “next-generation partnership, built on a strong foundation of proven trust” that will help “promote peace and freedom”.

The agreement – known as AUKUS, an abbreviation of the names of the three countries – does not give Australia nuclear weapons. But the technology enables the country’s submarines to travel longer and quieter, which increases their capacity in a region where tensions with China are increasing.

Maritime disputes are already common in the South China Sea, which Beijing has claimed as part of its territorial waters, and Taiwan has alerted to aggression by China, which regards the island as a rejecting province.

Adds the combustible mixture, North Korea and South Korea conducted ballistic missile tests this week when diplomatic talks with the two countries did not stop.

A senior official, who requested anonymity to discuss the announcement before it was presented, stressed that “this partnership is not targeted or about any country.” However, against the unmistakable background of Biden’s extensive efforts, it will confront China’s growing economic and military ambitions.

“The future of each of our nations — and indeed the world — depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific region that continues to flourish for decades to come,” Biden said.

In addition to AUKUS, the President has emphasized regional collaborations such as Quad, which consists of the United States, Australia, India and Japan. Biden plans to host a summit with the countries’ leaders in the White House next week.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on 9 September 2021.

(Lukas Coch / AAP image)

China has brushed up on American partnerships that can act as a counterweight to its influence.

“Forming closed and exclusive ‘clicks’ aimed at other countries goes against the trend of the time and deviates from the expectations of regional countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week. “It thus gains no support and is doomed to fail.”

Australia has six aging submarines with diesel engines, and it was on contract to buy a dozen new ones from France. Australia now plans to scrap the project, which was burdened by cost overruns, in favor of working with the United States and Britain to develop a nuclear fleet.

Morrison said the submarines would be built in Adelaide, on the south coast of his country.

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, expressed surprise that the United States shares such sensitive technology and that Australia would invest in such expensive military hardware.

“For a country with a relatively small defense budget like Australia,” he said, “the important question is not what the submarine can do, but what you give up in terms of opportunity costs.”

Jennifer Moroney, a security cooperation expert who ran Rand Corp’s first office in Australia, said China’s expanding reach in the region has prompted new military investment there.

“Australia needs to build its defensive capabilities,” she said. “Submarines are just a piece of it.”

It is unclear how many submarines will be built and how quickly Australia can start operating them. Their development will take years, and it will be a challenging business. Although Australia is a leading uranium producer, it has never operated nuclear power plants.

The three allies plan to spend the next 18 months investigating how their cooperation on the submarine project will work.

The only second time the United States has shared nuclear submarine capacity with another country is when it helped Britain with its own fleet in 1958.

The senior official described the technology as “extremely sensitive” and said the White House saw the agreement with Australia “as a one-off exception”.

Australia would be the first country without nuclear weapons to have nuclear power plants, a decision that, according to some analysts, has raised concerns about the proliferation of weapons. Other nations may try to follow in their footsteps by enriching uranium for marine reactors, creating more avenues for developing materials needed for nuclear bombs without the safeguards provided by regular inspections.

“In the cost-benefit analysis, the risks to the non-proliferation regime are very high,” said James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear policy program. “I would have a hard time believing that the benefits to Australia and the US and anyone else outweigh the risks.”

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