US, UK to arm Australia with nukes to counter China

Biden says Canberra will get nuclear submarines fleet and cruise missiles

By: AFP      Published: 07:42 AM, 16 Sep, 2021
US, UK to arm Australia with nukes to counter China
President Joe Biden announced a new national security initiative in partnership with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.–AFP

The United States announced a new alliance with Australia and Britain to strengthen military capabilities in the face of growing rivalry with China, including a new Australian nuclear submarine fleet and cruise missiles.

The announcement of the alliance -- made in a video meeting by President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his British counterpart Boris Johnson -- is sure to raise hackles in Beijing.

It also met with swift pushback from France, which has been negotiating a multi-billion-dollar sale of conventional submarines to Australia.

Biden said the work to enable Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines would ensure that they had "the most modern capabilities we need to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats."

The submarines, stressed Biden and the other leaders, will not be nuclear armed, only powered with nuclear reactors.

Morrison later announced Australia would also acquire long-range US Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The three leaders did not mention China in unveiling the partnership, dubbed AUKUS, but their intent was clear.

"Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific. This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures," Morrison said.

Johnson said they would work "hand in glove to preserve stability and security in the Indo-Pacific."

On a visit last week to Southeast Asia, Vice President Kamala Harris accused Beijing of "actions that... threaten the rules-based international order," particularly its aggressive claims in the South China Sea, where frequent territorial disputes have erupted between China and its neighbors in recent years.

Technical and naval representatives from the three countries will spend the next 18 months deciding how to carry out Australia's upgrade, which Johnson said would be "one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world, lasting for decades."

In addition to the submarine fleet, a senior Biden administration official said AUKUS will combine forces on "cyber, AI -- particularly applied AI -- quantum technologies and some undersea capabilities as well."

The Biden administration official underlined repeatedly how "unique" the decision is, with Britain being the only other country the United States has ever helped to build a nuclear fleet.

"This technology is extremely sensitive," the official said. "We view this as a one-off."

- Stealth and interoperability -

With China building up its own navy and repeatedly testing decades of US military dominance across Asia, the creation of AUKUS, with its focus on submarines, is "meant to send a message of reassurance and a determination to maintain a strong deterrent stance," the US official said.

Even if not carrying nuclear weapons, the new submarines will allow Australia to "play at a much higher level," the official said.

"Nuclear powered submarines really maintain superior characteristics of stealth, speed, maneuverability, survivability and really substantial endurance," the official said.

"You will see much deeper interoperability along our navies and our nuclear infrastructure," the official said. "This is a fundamental decision, fundamental. It binds Australia... and the United States and Great Britain for generations."

- French deal over - 

Biden, in an attempt to placate Paris, said France is a "key partner and ally" in the Indo-Pacific.

But the new alliance torpedoed Australia's conventional submarine deal with France, which had been personally backed by President Emmanuel Macron.

Morrison confirmed on Thursday morning Australia would not proceed with the deal.

France's foreign ministry said in a statement earlier that the decision to go with US submarines was "contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia."

The submarine contract with France was worth around Aus$50 billion (31 billion euros, 36.5 billion dollars) at the time of signing. More recently the overall deal was estimated at some Aus$90, taking into account currency fluctuations and cost overruns.

The company had agreed to build 12 conventional Attack Class subs, but the order was years behind schedule, well over budget and has become tangled in Australian domestic politics.

The AUKUS announcement comes as Australia has been boosting defense spending in response to China's more assertive posture.

Morrison will join Biden again on September 24, this time in person, at a first White House gathering of the "Quad" diplomatic group -- Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

Australia confirms scrapping French subs deal

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed Thursday the country has scrapped a Aus$90 billion (US$66 billion) submarine deal with France, instead building nuclear-powered subs using US and British technology.

"The decision we have made to not continue with the Attack Class submarine and to go down this path is not a change of mind, it's a change of need," he said.

The announcement confirmed a decision, which has been described as "regrettable" by the French government and met with "disappointment" by French firm Naval Group, which had been contracted to build 12 state-of-the-art Attack Class subs.

Morrison said France "remains an incredibly important partner in the Pacific" but acknowledged the relationship between Canberra and Paris has now taken a hit.

"We share a deep passion for our Pacific family and a deep commitment to them, and I look forward and I hope to see us continue once we move past what is obviously a very difficult and disappointing decision for France," he said.

"I understand that. I respect it. But as a prime minister I must make decisions that are in Australia's national security interests. I know France would do the same."

Morrison also announced that Australia would acquire long-range US Tomahawk cruise missiles for the first time, as it strengthens military defences to counter China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia's decision to boost its military arsenal amid already surging spending on defence is likely to further strain its fraught relationship with Beijing.

Morrison issued China's President Xi Jinping with an "open invitation" for talks in the wake of the announcements, saying Canberra officials had commenced engagement with Beijing, though Australian ministers have found themselves frozen out by their Chinese counterparts in recent months.

Australian nuclear subs will be banned from New Zealand waters: PM

New Zealand will not lift a decades-long ban on nuclear-powered vessels entering its waters in the wake of key ally Australia's decision to develop a nuclear submarine fleet, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday.

Ardern said her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison had briefed her on Canberra's plan to develop nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the United States and Britain.

She described the deal as "primarily around technology and defence hardware", playing down implications for the so-called "Five Eyes" partnership of the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

"This arrangement in no way changes our security and intelligence ties with these three countries, as well as Canada," the New Zealand leader said in a statement.

But she also said New Zealand would maintain a ban on nuclear-powered vessels that dates back to 1985, meaning Wellington will not allow the prized naval asset being developed by Australia into its waters.

"New Zealand's position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged," Ardern said.

The ban was introduced in the wake of French nuclear testing in the Pacific and led to the US navy banning its warships from entering New Zealand ports for more than 30 years.

The destroyer USS Sampson visited in late 2016 but only after the then-prime minister John Key gave a special exemption, saying he was "100 percent confident" the vessel was not nuclear powered or carrying nuclear weapons.

Official US policy is to neither confirm nor deny whether its vessels are nuclear-capable.

Biden backs top general on calls to China over Trump mental state

Top US General Mark Milley held onto his job Wednesday after President Joe Biden rejected pressure to fire him for alleged "secret" phone calls to China amid concerns about then-president Donald Trump's mental state.

"I have great confidence in General Milley," Biden said.

Republicans demanded Biden dismiss Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accusing him of undermining civilian control of the military in the calls to his Beijing counterpart last October and January, as Trump refused to accept his election loss.

Milley insisted his calls to Chinese General Li Zuocheng, revealed Tuesday in excerpts from a new book by Washington Post investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, were a normal part of his duties.

"His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability," Joint Chiefs spokesman Colonel Dave Butler said.

The book, "Peril," also says that on January 8, two days after Trump supporters ransacked the US Capital building, Milley told his staff that if a "rogue" Trump ordered a nuclear strike, that he would have to confirm it before it was carried out.

That, too, was normal procedure, Butler insisted.

- Army Ranger -

It was the four-star general's latest brush with career death, after repeatedly getting caught up in Trump's political machinations following his appointment as Joint Chiefs chairman in September 2019.

A Princeton and Columbia history scholar, Milley, 63, has spent 41 years in the US Army, first as a Ranger and Green Beret, with four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As army chief of staff during 2015-2019, he said his goal was readying the force for the next conflict.

After decades of fighting insurgencies, he said, the military had lost its "muscle memory" for land war, which Milley warned could erupt with North Korea.

"Today, a major in the Army knows nothing but fighting terrorists and guerrillas, because he came into the Army after 9/11," Milley told The New York Times in 2016. 

- Trump and politics -

But becoming Joint Chiefs chairman quickly sucked Milley into the chaotic world of Trump politics.

Trump had already used the military for his political ends, diverting billions of dollars of Pentagon funding to build an anti-migrant wall on the US Southwest border.

But it was too much when, in the summer of 2020 after Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, Trump wanted Milley to mobilize troops to confront them.

According to The Wall Street Journal's Michael Bender, the two had a shouting match over the issue in the White House Situation Room.

Milley then pushed back in June 2020, when Trump lured him and then-defense secretary Mark Esper unknowingly to walk at his side through Lafayette Square in front of the White House in a show of power against peaceful protesters there.

The scene made it appear like the defense chiefs were taking Trump's side in politics.

"I should not have been there," Milley said shortly afterwards, miffing Trump.

Milley further disagreed with Trump's objections to permitting transgender people in the military, and to confronting racism and political extremism in the ranks.

- Afghanistan pullout -

He also reportedly disagreed with Trump's pressure last year for a rapid withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan.

According to the Woodward-Costa book, just after his election loss Trump had two aides draw up a secret order to have all troops out by January 15.

Milley was stunned to find out about the order, discovering that no other senior officials knew about it either.

He stormed over to the White House.

"What do you mean you have no idea? You're the national security adviser to the president," he said to Robert O'Brien, according to the book.

"How the hell does this happen?"

O'Brien had the letter cancelled, but it added to suspicions Trump was becoming more erratic and impulsive.

According to another book, by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Milley was so worried late last year that Trump intended to hold onto power that he compared the president to Hitler.

"This is a Reichstag moment... The gospel of the Fuhrer," Milley warned Pentagon aides, the authors report.

Trump lashed out on Tuesday, calling Milley a crude epithet and the account in the Woodard-Costa book "fake news."

"I assume that he would be tried for treason in that he would have been dealing with his Chinese counterpart behind the president's back," Trump said of Milley.

"For the record, I never even thought of attacking China -- and China knows that," he added.