Why Australia Bet the House on Lasting American Power in Asia
Less than three years ago, Australia’s leader said his country need not choose between the U.S. and China. A nuclear submarine deal shows that much has changed since then.
SYDNEY, Australia — When Scott Morrison became Australia’s prime minister three years ago, he insisted that the country could maintain close ties with China, its largest trading partner, while working with the United States, its main security ally.
“Australia doesn’t have to choose,” he said in one of his first foreign policy speeches.
On Thursday, Australia effectively chose. Following years of sharply deteriorating relations with Beijing, Australia announced a new defense agreement in which the United States and Britain would help it deploy nuclear-powered submarines, a major advance in Australian military strength.
With its move to acquire heavy weaponry and top-secret technology, Australia has thrown in its lot with the United States for generations to come — a “forever partnership,” in Mr. Morrison’s words. The agreement will open the way to deeper military ties and higher expectations that Australia would join any military conflict with Beijing.
It’s a big strategic bet that America will prevail in its great-power competition with China and continue to be a dominant and stabilizing force in the Pacific even as the costs increase.
“It really is a watershed moment — a defining moment for Australia and the way it thinks about its future in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Richard Maude, a former Australian security official who is now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“It does represent really quite sharp concerns now in the Morrison government about a deteriorating security environment in the region, about China’s military buildup and about China’s willingness to use coercive power to pursue national interests,” he said.
Clearly, the United States also made a choice: that the need for a firm alliance to counter Beijing is so urgent that it would set aside longstanding reservations about sharing sensitive nuclear technology. Australia will become only the second country — after Britain in 1958 — to be given access to the American submarine technology, which allows for stealthier movement over longer distances.
For the United States, the decision to bolster a close Asia-Pacific ally represents a tangible escalation of its efforts to answer China’s rapid military growth. The Defense Department said in its most recent report to Congress that China now had the largest navy in the world, measured in numbers of vessels, having built a fleet of approximately 350 ships by 2019, including a dozen nuclear submarines.
By comparison, the U.S. Navy has around 293 ships. While American vessels tend to be larger, China is also catching up with aircraft carriers while surpassing the United States with smaller, agile ships.
At the same time, China has moved aggressively to secure locations for outposts and missiles, building up its presence on islands that it constructed in the South China Sea. Security analysts believe that Australia would be likely to use nuclear-powered submarines to patrol the important shipping lanes there,in waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The choice of vessel, they said, sends an unmistakable message.
“Nothing is more provocative to China than nuke stuff and submarine stuff,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, who is a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and at the American Enterprise Institute. “China’s so weak in anti-submarine warfare in comparison to other capabilities.”
“To me,” said Ms. Mastro, a regular visitor to Australia, “it suggests that Australia is willing to take some real risks in its relationship to stand up to China.”