American, British, and Australian officials forged an agreement allowing Australia to construct eight nuclear-powered submarines in a move to counter China’s growing aggression in the Pacific.
The defense partnership—which will go by the moniker AUKUS—is the first time the United States will share advanced nuclear submarine technology with an ally since 1958. Leaders of the countries cited a changing security environment in the region as grounds for the agreement.
"Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific," Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said. "To meet these challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level."
Experts said the massive naval and nuclear buildup of the Chinese Communist Party forced the defense pact. China has the largest navy in the world, and satellite imagery shows Beijing has rapidly expanded its nuclear arsenal.
"Nothing is more provocative to China than nuke stuff and submarine stuff," said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow who specializes in defense policy and China. "[The pact] suggests that Australia is willing to take some real risks in its relationship to stand up to China."
The agreement effectively axed a $90 billion deal between a French defense contractor and Australia for 12 diesel-powered submarines, a less advanced version of the American systems offered to Australia. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Canberra’s decision to scuttle the deal was "unacceptable" and that his country felt "stabbed in the back," saying the American submarine deal looked like something that former president Donald Trump would do.
Chinese officials expressed concern over the deal and Australia’s defensive alignment with the United States and Britain. China waged a trade war with Australia throughout 2020 and 2021, attempting to curb increasingly hawkish views in the country toward China. But that effort appears to have backfired with the deal’s signing.
"[The defense agreement is] severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday. "China always believes that any regional mechanism should conform to the trend of peace and development of the times and help enhance mutual trust and cooperation. ... It should not target any third party or undermine its interests."