Biden to Announce National Security Initiative

President Biden said the United States and Britain will help Australia to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, adding to the Western presence in the region.,


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Biden announces a defense deal with Australia in a bid to counter China.

President Biden during a meeting on Wednesday with business leaders. Later at the White House he announced a new national security initiative with Australia.
President Biden during a meeting on Wednesday with business leaders. Later at the White House he announced a new national security initiative with Australia.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
  • Sept. 15, 2021Updated 5:23 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration took a major step on 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, announced on Wednesday by President Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, comes to fruition, Australia may be conducting routine patrols that could sail through areas of the South China Sea that Beijing now claims as its own exclusive zone, and range as far north as Taiwan. The announcement 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, 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, with nuclear propulsion systems that offer limitless range and run so quietly that they are hard to detect, Australia would become a far more muscular player in the American-led alliance in the Pacific. And for Mr. Johnson, the new defense arrangement would bolster his effort to develop a new “Global Britain” strategy that focuses on the Pacific, the next step after Brexit took the country out of the European Union.

American officials said Australia had committed never to arm the submarines with nuclear weapons; they would almost certainly carry conventional, submarine-launched cruise missiles. Australia is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bans it from acquiring or deploying nuclear weapons. Yet even conventionally-armed submarines, manned by Australian sailors, could alter the naval balance of power balance in the Pacific.

“Attack submarines are 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 in great-power competition. “This would be hard to imagine 5 years ago. And it would have been impossible 10 years ago. And that says a lot about China’s behavior in the region.”

The announcement is the latest in a series of actions by Mr. Biden, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan and his Asia coordinator, Kurt Campbell, to design a strategy that pushes back on Chinese economic, military and technological expansionism. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Biden spoke with President Xi Jinping of China last week for roughly 90 minutes, only the second time the two leaders have spoken in since Mr. Biden took office. Few details of the conversation were revealed, so it is unclear if Mr. 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 to a close ally, was a major move for Mr. Biden — one bound to raise protests by the Chinese and questions from American allies and nonproliferation experts. The United States last shared the nuclear propulsion technology with an ally in 1958 in a similar agreement with the United Kingdom, 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 in an effort to limit the risk of proliferation.

The movement gained momentum after the Sept. 11 attacks, and President Barack Obama ran a series of “nuclear summits,” drawing leaders from around the world, that were used to pressure nations to take old reactors that use highly-enriched uranium out of service, so that the fuel could never fall into the hands of terrorists.

But the new arrangement with Australia seems almost sure to move in the other direction: Australia will almost certainly power its submarines with highly-enriched uranium, because for now there is little other choice. Aware of the contradiction, administration officials cast the decision as an “exception,” though one they would not make for other major allies, including South Korea, which in decades past was caught moving toward building its own nuclear arsenal. Australia has been a leader in the nonproliferation movement.

“We last did this 70 years ago,” a senior administration official deeply involved in the negotiations over the deal said on Wednesday. “After today, it’s not likely we will do it again.”

Officials said that the details will 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 almost certainly be buying it from American stockpiles.

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 U.S. 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,” Mr. 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 the need to ensure the security around 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, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense strategy and force development

“The valid nonproliferation questions and concerns are outweighed by the importance of remedying the worsening military balance in the western Pacific,” said Mr. Colby, who recently wrote a book on U.S.-China relations. “If nonproliferation has to take a back seat, that’s the right call.”

In a briefing, administration officials cast the submarine project as the first in a series that would bring Australia more tightly into the military alliance. Future projects, they said, could involve artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyber technology, and addressing supply-chain issues.

But the fact of the matter is that 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 cyber threats and a range of terrorism threats. Australia already has a significant offensive cyber capability, and a vast detection network, and has often been involved in operations to counter China’s cyber capability.

Mr. Colby said the decision to share the technology was a “big step” to addressing China’s aggressive tactics in the Pacific.

“The only way we’re going to be able to rectify that is by focusing our own efforts and more critically enlisting and uplifting our allies’ efforts,” said Mr. Colby, who wrote the Trump administration’s national defense strategy that emphasized competition with China and Russia.

The partnership was the latest effort to challenge the rising influence of China in the Pacific. The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin, traveled to Singapore, the anchor of the U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea, to reassure Southeast Asian nations of the administration’s investment in the region. And during a trip to Hanoi this summer, Vice President Kamala Harris accused Beijing of “bullying” while also offering a Vietnamese delegation a Coast Guard cutter to enhance the nation’s presence in the region.

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