The leaders of the US, UK and Australia on Wednesday unveiled a trilateral security alliance that would involve the sharing of information and sensitive technologies as well as greater leveraging of supply chains and industrial bases.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the new group, which goes by the acronym Aukus, while appearing virtually alongside US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also virtually, at the White House.
It also means that the US will finally share its coveted nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia, which Britain acquired in 1958.
The acquisition is a major feat for Australia, which has been requesting access to the technology for years.
“The first major initiative of Aukus will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia,” said Mr Morrison.
“We intend to build these submarines in Adelaide, Australia, in close co-operation with the United Kingdom and the United States. But let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability and we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
Mr Biden said that the nuclear-powered submarine initiative for Australia would require an 18-month consultation period.
“Today, we are taking a historic step to deepen and formalise co-operation among all three of our nations because we all recognise the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term," said Mr Biden.
In addition to paving the way for the Australian nuclear-powered submarines, the pact will also allow the three countries to share technology, including long-range strike capabilities and artificial intelligence.
“Only a handful of countries possess nuclear-powered submarines, and it is a momentous decision for any nation to acquire this formidable capability and perhaps equally momentous for any other state to come to its aid,” Mr Johnson said.
“The United States looks forward to working with France and other key countries as we go forward,” said Mr Biden.
For the UK, Aukus is an articulation of the country's ambition, made in its recent Integrated Review, to deepen defence, security and foreign policy ties with like-minded allies across the globe.
The agreement reflects the unique level of trust and co-operation between the three countries, who already share extensive intelligence through the Five Eyes alliance.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said: "The UK, Australia and US are natural allies – while we may be separated geographically, our interests and values are shared. The Aukus alliance will bring us closer than ever, creating a new defence partnership and driving jobs and prosperity.
“This partnership will become increasingly vital for defending our interests in the Indo-Pacific region and, by extension, protecting our people back at home.”
The UK and US are already leading members of Nato. The work done by Aukus will support the countries' shared goals in new regions, promoting stability and protecting people against new and emerging threats.
In recent weeks the UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier has been deployed to the Indo-Pacific region alongside personnel and equipment from the US. Last month, the Carrier Strike Group undertook a series of exercises with countries including Australia to build interoperability with like-minded partners.
Australia has maintained a fleet of six Collins class submarines since the 1980s, but has been seeking to modernise its fleet due to concerns over readiness.
“It’s very hard to overestimate how important and challenging this endeavour will be,” a senior US administration official told reporters on a call previewing the announcement.
“Australia does not have a nuclear domestic infrastructure. They made a major commitment to go in that direction. This will be a sustained effort over years and everything that we’ve seen from Australia indicates that they’re determined to proceed on this course.”
The senior US official also vowed that the Biden administration would debrief “all interested parties and explain clearly what our intentions are in the Indo-Pacific”, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear watchdog.
The US and Australia will hold ministerial-level consultations on Thursday.