President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled a new effort to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, a major step toward countering China as he works to build international backing for his approach to Beijing.
The announcement came as part of a new trilateral partnership among the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom that the three countries' leaders jointly revealed Wednesday afternoon. "The United States, Australia and the United Kingdom have long been faithful and capable partners and we're even closer today," the President said. "Today, we're taking another historic step to deepen and formalize cooperation among all three of our nations, because we all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term."
The partnership kicks off what is expected to be a flurry of diplomatic engagements for Biden this autumn, from next week's United Nations meetings to a White House summit of Asian leaders to October's Group of 20 talks in Italy.
Underpinning his efforts is a desire to rally the West and US partners in Asia in the battle between "autocracy versus democracy," one of the defining objectives of his presidency. Biden has made countering China a central aspect of his foreign policy as tensions grow over the South China Sea and Taiwan, and has said he wants American allies on board.
The new partnership between the US, UK and Australia -- three English-speaking maritime democracies -- is not specifically about China, officials insisted ahead of the announcement. Instead, they said the three countries would hold a schedule of meetings over the coming months to coordinate on cyber issues, advanced technologies and defense in a bid to better meet modern-day security challenges. The new partnership is called AUKUS, pronounced "aw-kiss."
Yet it is the move toward establishing nuclear submarine capability in Australia, which officials said will allow the country to operate at a vastly higher level militarily, that will amount to the center of the announcement. Nuclear submarines are able to maneuver at greater speeds and endurance, and more stealthily, than conventional ones, which must surface more often. "This allows Australia to play at a much higher level and to augment American capabilities," a senior administration official said ahead of the announcement. "This is about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."
Biden, during Wednesday's announcement, also maintained that the establishment of AUKUS is necessary because "we need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve."
Still, the announcement is the latest step by the US to push back against China's military and technological rise. Next week, Biden will host an in-person summit of the QUAD partnership of Japan, Australia and India — another grouping viewed as a way to assert American leadership in Asia. He has also sought to engage other Asian leaders, and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam late last month.
Last week, Biden held a 90-minute telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first direct communication in seven months. Officials described the conversation as "familiar" and "candid," but said Biden did not directly raise the new strategic partnership with Australia and the UK.
Biden on Tuesday denied reports that Xi, in their phone call, turned down an invitation to meet in person. US officials say they still hope to set up an in-person meeting between the two leaders, but aren't sure it will occur on the sidelines of the G20 at the end of October. That is primarily because Xi has not confirmed he will physically attend the summit, which is being held in Rome. Xi has not left China in roughly 600 days, since before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
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Also hoping to play a larger role in Asia is the United Kingdom, which under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sought to pursue a "Global Britain" strategy of greater engagement abroad. That effort has been sputtering at times, particularly as Johnson works to contain the Covid-19 pandemic at home and buffer his country from the economic fallout of Brexit.
Still, American officials have received indications from their British counterparts that the UK hopes to "substantially step up its game in the Indo-Pacific," and believe the new partnership with Australia can help advance that goal.
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