Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 13 March 2023

James Stavridis

The US, UK and Australia Send China a Message

A new agreement to share the technology for nuclear-powered submarines could help ease tensions throughout the Pacific.

The ocean’s apex predator.

The ocean’s apex predator.

Photographer: SOPA Images/LightRocket
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As a US Navy admiral in command of America’s fleet of nuclear submarines, I often found myself in Point Loma, California, at the entrance to San Diego harbor. It is the home base of the Navy’s attack submarine force, whose importance is hard to overstate.

These warships are the apex predators of the high seas. They overmatch their Chinese and Russian counterparts in stealth, range and offensive firepower. When powered by nuclear reactors and freed of the necessity of ever surfacing for oxygen, Virginia-class subs are deadly killers that threaten any surface ship on the planet.

Point Loma is also the site of today’s historic summit of the leaders of the US, Australia and the UK, where they announced a ground-breaking defense accord. What are the key elements of this agreement — and how will all this be received in Beijing?

The US will sell Australia up to five of these vaunted Virginia-class submarines, and will share technology that enables Australia to build their own boats with the help of the British. US, UK, and eventually Australian nuclear attack submarines will also be based in Australia, notably out of Perth on the western coast of the vast Australian continent — far from Washington and London but closer to China. Over the next several decades, the three allies will become fully aligned on nuclear submarine technology, bringing additional capability far closer to Beijing.

It is important to note what is not in the agreement: nuclear weapons. This is all about nuclear propulsion. The Aukus agreement will provide Australia the ability to use nuclear reactors to produce all the propulsion and logistic capability for the warships, but the agreement very specifically will not provide nuclear weapons (which both the US and UK have, but not Australia). Even without nuclear weapons, however, the undersea capability provided by nuclear reactors is profound.

Tactically, the addition of these powerful undersea warships will bring significant fighting capability to the western powers in the South China Sea. Even as China seeks to consolidate its territorial claims on that body of water — half the size of the continental United States — the increasing capability of nuclear attack submarines from the three allies will undermine its ability to enforce claims of sovereignty. Eventually, an additional half dozen or more Australian subs, alongside US and British variants, will have a chilling effect on China’s surface forces in the region.

Operationally, this subsurface capability will strengthen the US ability to operate its surface warships — carriers, cruisers and destroyers — throughout the South China Sea. It will not only push back on Chinese claims of territorial control and enhance the “freedom of navigation patrols” that are important to refuting Chinese claims, but will also allow more aggressive US Navy presence in support of Taiwan in the contested regions. And of course these warships can range throughout the Pacific, from the far north and across the vast Indian Ocean.

Finally, the crucial strategic message here is clear: the US, UK and Australia are coordinating at the very highest levels on defense strategy. This will create a natural rallying point for other nations — Japan, South Korea, Singapore — that are interested in advanced technology. It will also encourage other US allies in the Pacific — the Philippines (which just signed an agreement with the US for access to military sites on their northern island of Luzon) and Thailand — to continue their relationship with the US in the region.

This agreement will also catch the eye of India, a crucial player in the Indo-Pacific. The alignment of the US, UK and Australia — nations with whom India enjoys solid defense relationships — may have the salutatory effect of pulling the Indians away from China and Russia and toward the West. The Aukus agreement will also be noticed in capitals of many non-aligned nations in the global South, including Brazil, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa (of which the latter two, of course, border on the Indian Ocean).

It has certainly been noticed in Beijing, where Chinese officials have condemned it as part of a strategy to “encircle and contain” China. As the Chinese look eastward, they see not only this new submarine agreement but also the Philippine basing agreement; a significant increase in the Japanese defense budget (strongly encouraged by the US); a new US Marine base in Guam; and an aggressive conversation in the US Congress. Naturally, they object to all of it.


The more pertinent question is whether China will do anything about it. The long time horizon of the deal — it will be years before a sub is based in Australia, and decades before the whole project is completely operational —  may be seen as increasing pressure for China to act. But President Xi Jinping is known to be patient and is unlikely to react militarily in the interim. The most likely near-term response is redoubled research and development on China’s own submarine program.

Yes, the prospect of a fleet of nuclear submarines Down Under will make Beijing nervous. But for Washington, London and Canberra, coordinating on the world’s most advanced warfighting technology is smart strategy. 

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