Biden meets Australian, British leaders in California on subs pact

WASHINGTON – US President Joe Biden will meet with the leaders of Australia and Britain at a California naval base on Monday for an expected announcement of a nuclear submarine deal aimed at stabilising the Asia-Pacific region as it faces a rising China.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will join Mr Biden at the base in San Diego, 18 months after their countries formed an alliance called Aukus with the principal goal of bringing Australia into the fold of navies possessing nuclear-powered submarines.

While Australia has ruled out deploying atomic weapons, its acquisition of the nuclear-powered vessels will transform its role in a US-led project to maintain the decades-old balance of power in the Pacific.

According to US media, Mr Biden will announce a long-term, multi-stage plan destined to make Australia a full partner in fielding top-secret US nuclear technology previously only shared with historic ally Britain.

As many as five Virginia class US nuclear-powered submarines will be sold to Australia over the next decade, The Washington Post reported.

Australia and Britain would then both embark on building a new submarine model, using US propulsion technology and dubbed the SSN-Aukus, with delivery in the 2040s.

While the plan will require years to come to fruition, it marks an ambitious shift from Australia and the United States as they contemplate the rapid expansion of Chinese military power, including Beijing’s building up a sophisticated naval fleet and turning artificial islands into offshore bases.

Diplomatic spat with France

Australia had previously been on track to replace its ageing current fleet of diesel-powered submarines with a US$66 billion (S$88 billion) package of French vessels, also conventionally powered.

The abrupt announcement by Canberra that it was backing out of that deal and entering the Aukus project sparked a brief, but unusually furious row between all three countries and their close ally France.

Australia is now looking to wield the technologically superior US and, later, US-British underwater vessels, which will be able to stay submerged almost indefinitely and launch powerful cruise missiles.

Compared to the Collins-class submarines due to be retired by Australia, the Virginia class is almost twice as long and carries 132 crew, not 48.

Although Australia rules out acquiring its own nuclear weapons, China warned that Aukus risked setting off an arms race and accused the three countries of setting back nuclear nonproliferation efforts.