WASHINGTON — The Biden administration took a major step Wednesday in challenging China’s broad territorial claims in the Pacific, announcing that the United States and Britain would help Australia to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, adding to the Western presence in the region.
If the plan comes to fruition, Australia may begin conducting routine patrols that could move through areas of the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its exclusive zone and range as far north as Taiwan. The announcement, made by President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, is a major step for Australia, which until recent years has been hesitant to push back directly at core Chinese interests.
Australia has felt increasingly threatened, however, and three years ago was among the first nations to ban Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, from its networks. Now, with the prospect of deploying a new submarine fleet, Australia would become a far more muscular player in the U.S.-led alliance in the Pacific. The vessels are equipped with nuclear propulsion systems that offer limitless range and run so quietly that they are hard to detect. For Johnson, the new defense arrangement would bolster his effort to develop a “Global Britain” strategy that focuses on the Pacific, the next step after Brexit took the country out of the European Union.
“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow,” Biden said in the East Room, flanked by two televisions showing the British and Australian leaders at their remote news briefings. “It’s about connecting America’s existing allies and partners in new ways.”
Biden and Morrison said Australia would not arm the submarines with nuclear weapons. Australia is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bans it from acquiring or deploying nuclear weapons.
The submarines almost certainly would carry conventional, submarine-launched cruise missiles.
“Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” Morrison said.
Yet even conventionally armed submarines, staffed by Australian sailors, could alter the naval balance of power in the Pacific.
“Attack submarines are a big deal, and they send a big message,” said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies the use of nuclear weapons and delivery systems among major powers. “This would be hard to imagine five years ago, and it would have been impossible 10 years ago. And that says a lot about China’s behavior in the region.”
In Australia, the move was considered a momentous shift by some strategists.
“The Australian decision to go this way is not just a decision to go for a nuclear-powered submarine,” said Hugh White, a professor at Australian National University and a former Australian defense official. “It’s a decision to deepen and consolidate our strategic alignment with the United States against China.”
He added, “This just further deepens the sense that we do have a new Cold War in Asia and that Australia is betting that in that new Cold War, the U.S. is going to emerge victorious.”
The announcement is the latest action in a U.S. strategy to push back on Chinese economic, military and technological expansion, carried out by Biden; his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; and his Asia coordinator, Kurt Campbell. Over the past eight months, they have blocked China from acquiring key technologies, including materials for semiconductor production; urged nations to reject Huawei; edged toward closer dealings with Taiwan; and denounced China’s crackdown on Hong Kong.
Next week, Biden will gather the leaders of “the Quad” — an informal partnership of the United States, Japan, India and Australia — at the White House for an in-person meeting, another way to demonstrate common resolve in dealing with Beijing.
Biden spoke with President Xi Jinping of China last week for roughly 90 minutes, only the second time the two leaders have spoken since Biden took office. Few details of the conversation were revealed, so it is unclear whether Biden gave his Chinese counterpart warning of the move with Australia. But none of it would have come as a surprise to Beijing; earlier, the Australians had announced a deal with France for less technologically sophisticated submarines. That deal collapsed.
Nonetheless, the decision to share the technology for naval reactors, even with a close ally, was a major move for Biden — one bound to raise protests by China and questions from U.S. allies and nonproliferation experts. The United States last shared the nuclear propulsion technology with an ally in 1958 in a similar agreement with Britain, administration officials said.
“There is a shared understanding that we need to strengthen deterrence and actually be prepared to fight a conflict if one occurs,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, a policy think tank. “It reflects growing concern about Chinese military capabilities and intentions.”
The nuclear reactors that power American and British submarines use bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium, a remnant of Cold War-era designs. And for two decades, Washington has been on a drive to eliminate reactors around the world that use bomb-grade fuel, substituting them with less dangerous fuel to limit the risk of proliferation.
The movement gained momentum after the Sept. 11 attacks. President Barack Obama ran a series of “nuclear summits” for world leaders, used to pressure nations to remove from service old reactors that used highly enriched uranium so that the fuel could never fall into the hands of terrorists.
But the arrangement with Australia seems almost sure to move in the other direction: Australia is likely to power its submarines with highly enriched uranium, because for now, there is little choice. Aware of the contradiction, administration officials cast the decision as an “exception,” though one they would not make for other major allies. That includes South Korea, which in decades past was caught moving toward building its own nuclear arsenal. Australia has been a leader in the nonproliferation movement.
A senior administration official deeply involved in the negotiations over the deal said Wednesday that the United States had not made a deal like this in decades and that, “after today, it’s not likely we will do it again.”
Officials said that the details would be worked out over the next 18 months, including strict controls on nuclear technology. They said Australia had already agreed not to produce the highly enriched fuel, meaning it will probably buy it from American stockpiles. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will lead the administration in the partnership, which also involves collaborating on cybertechnology and artificial intelligence.
The United States has explored moving away from highly enriched uranium. A study by the Pentagon’s top nuclear advisory group concluded in 2019 that the United States should shift to reactors that burn low-enriched uranium, which cannot be easily diverted to use in weapons. But that process, the experts concluded, could not begin until after 2040.
“There will be many who say we are giving the Australians a gateway drug for a nuclear capability,’’ Narang said. “It is not something we would let other major allies get away with, much less help make it possible.”
But China’s aggressive tactics in the Pacific and America’s desire to ensure security for Taiwan required the United States to empower Australia, even if it meant carving an exception to the effort to reduce the use of weapons-grade nuclear fuel, according to Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary of defense strategy and force development.
“If nonproliferation has to take a back seat, that’s the right call,” said Colby.
Australia has, for more than seven decades, been a member of the “Five Eyes,” the intelligence alliance that includes the major English-speaking victors of World War II. The other four are the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. They regularly exchange information on cyberthreats and a range of terrorism threats.