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Biden is selling U.S. nuclear submarines to Australia to counter China

Leon Neal/Getty Images
President Biden announced new details of a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom at a U.S. naval base in San Diego.

Updated March 13, 2023 at 6:06 PM ET

President Biden met the leaders of Australia and the United Kingdom on Monday to map out some details of a new nuclear submarine pact: part of a defense partnership aimed at countering China's growing military power.

The partnership is known as AUKUS, an acronym representing the three nations involved in the deal, and the details were unveiled by Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

"As we stand at the inflection point in history where the hard work of enhancing deterrence and promoting stability is going to affect the prospects of peace for decades to come, the United States can ask for no better partners in the Indo-Pacific, where so much of our shared future will be written," Biden said standing between Albanese and Sunak outside at the Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego.

The deal will eventually see Australia build its own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, but will begin with the sale of at least three U.S. submarines to the country.

Nuclear-powered submarines are more stealthy than conventional ones because they have greater range, can stay underwater longer and are harder to detect. President Biden repeatedly stressed that the submarines are "nuclear powered, not nuclear armed."

Sharing the technology is a rare step. The United States has only done this once before, back in 1959, with the United Kingdom.

The leaders say things have changed in the Pacific

All three leaders addressed concerns about shifts in regional security.

Albanese said the pact "represents the biggest single investment in Australia's defense capability in all of our history." Sunak said challenges have evolved even in the 18 months since they announced the AUKUS partnerships.

"Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine. China's growing assertiveness," Sunak said. "The destabilizing behavior of Iran and North Korea all threaten to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division. Faced with this new reality, it is more important than ever that we strengthen the resilience of our own countries."

The agreement is a response to escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Last year, China signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands that raised concerns and China has been building military outposts on several small, reclaimed islands across the region.

"China was not mentioned when AUKUS was first announced, although the exponential growth of Beijing's military power and its more aggressive use over the past decade was the clear animating force behind it," said Charles Edel, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The new agreement, first announced in 2021, began with the training of Australian sailors and engineers. In few years, the nations will also start rotational deployments of U.S. and U.K. submarines in Australia.

Then, in the early 2030s, Australia is expected to buy at least three and as many as five U.S. Virginia-class nuclear powered submarines from the United States.

In the final stage, the three nations will build and deploy new state-of-the-art nuclear powered submarines based on U.K. and U.S. technology, sometime in the 2040s.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.