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Trilateral Security Pact Between U.S., U.K. and Australia Riles China and France

A landmark defence and security partnership has been agreed by the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia which aims to protect and defend the nations’ shared interests in the Indo-Pacific.

A landmark defence and security partnership has been agreed by the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia which aims to protect and defend the nations’ shared interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Under the AUKUS alliance, the three countries will enhance the development of joint capabilities and technology sharing, and foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains.

The first initiative under AUKUS will be a collaboration on future nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. In a joint statement, the countries said the capability will promote stability in the Indo-Pacific and will be deployed in support of their shared values and interests.

The trilateral security partnership has not as yet mentioned China by name but the undertones were clear. China has been quick to denounce the move. According to a report by the BBC, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the alliance risked “severely damaging regional peace… and intensifying the arms race”. He was also critical of what he called “the obsolete Cold War… mentality” and warned the three countries were “hurting their own interests”.

In a press call following the announcement of AUKUS, a White House senior administration official was asked about the “direct linkage” with China. The official responded that nuclear-powered submarines maintain “superior characteristics of stealth and speed, maneuverability, survivability, and really substantial endurance”, adding “what we’re seeing in the Indo-Pacific region is a — is a set of circumstances where capabilities are more advanced”.  AUKUS would therefore enable Australia to effectively ‘level up’ in order to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. In a statement, the Australian Department of Defence said the program represents “a substantial capability leap” for the Royal Australian Navy.

China has not been the only country to find the formation of AUKUS unwelcome news. The announcement sees Australia cancel an order for French-built submarines. France has subsequently recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia and cancelled a French/U.S. gala which was due to be held on September 17. The submarine contract with France’s Naval Group had reportedly been delayed and was subject to cost overruns and redesigns. French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian has called the new security pact a “stab in the back”.

Aware of the tensions, President Biden said the AUKUS effort reflects a broader trend of key European countries playing an extremely important role in the Indo-Pacific. “France, in particular, already has a substantial Indo-Pacific presence and is a key partner and ally in strengthening the security and prosperity of the region,” Biden said, adding that the United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries. 

The U.K. has built and operated nuclear-powered submarines for over 60 years. The initial scoping phase for the new endeavour is expected to take 18 months. The British government says the design and build process will create hundreds of jobs across the U.K., and drive investment in high-tech sectors. Ultimately, the submarines will be built in Adelaide, Australia, in close cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States.

The AUKUS submarines will be nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed. “I want to be exceedingly clear about this,” said President Biden. “We’re not talking about nuclear-armed submarines.  These are conventionally armed submarines that are powered by nuclear reactors.  This technology is proven.  It’s safe.  And the United States and the U.K. have been operating nuclear-powered submarines for decades.”

The trilateral collaboration will not end with the submarines. Further efforts under AUKUS yet to be disclosed will focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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