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Politics & Government

U.S. Officials Will Share Nuclear Sub Technology With Australia

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. is taking the very rare step of sharing its nuclear-powered submarine technology. For more than 60 years, the U.S. has only shared with the United Kingdom, but a new pact is going to include Australia as well. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following this one. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: Why is the U.S. doing this right now?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're putting together a new defense partnership called AUKUS. The leaders talked yesterday about seeing a need to work together to address emerging security threats, and they said the three nations have historical ties and shared values. Here's actually how President Biden put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Because we all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Noel, the one word that none of them said, though, was China. But it's clear that this is intended to respond to escalating tensions in the South China Sea. It's a major shipping lane for oil and gas resources, and China has been building military outposts on several small, reclaimed islands there. And the president has repeatedly stated that he sees China as the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States.

KING: OK. So yesterday, no one said China. We assume that China knows what's up, however. What is China saying in response?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, China is not happy with this. I mean, the China Embassy in Washington told Reuters that countries need to, quote, "shake off their Cold War mentality." I spoke with Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund. She told me that China is likely to see this all as a threat.

BONNIE GLASER: It's a threat because China is more effective when it can divide the United States from its allies and it can use its economic clout to woo neighbors to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative. And it can dominate, and it can use its economic levers to influence the policies of other countries.

ORDOÑEZ: Belt and Road, of course, is China's program to help build big infrastructure projects around the world. Glaser said Biden is investing a lot of time strengthening and building coalitions to counter China, and he is also putting China front and center in these talks, as he did in Brussels this summer when NATO leaders called China a security threat.

KING: I was reading this morning that France is also upset about this pact. Why is that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. This new deal means that Australia is actually canceling an order for French submarines. The French foreign minister was very angry and complained that France was excluded, calling this a lack of coherence given its work in the Indo-Pacific region. And he also said that this reinforces the need for Europe to become more autonomous.

KING: That's an interesting statement. So what happens next with the submarines? What does Australia get?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, there's a lot of details to be worked out. They think it will take 18 months to hold these talks and work with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, which oversees all things nuclear. The leaders were very clear yesterday, though, that these are not nuclear-armed submarines, but nuclear-powered submarines. They're faster, more stealth, and they can stay underwater longer than conventional subs. Now, they'll be built in Australia, but British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they would create jobs in his country, too.

Biden and Morrison will actually meet next week at the White House with another group that's aimed at China, what's known as the Quad. Leaders from India and Japan will be there, too. And this is all happening as President Biden works to turn the page on the 20-year war in Afghanistan and the chaotic exit. Even when he talked about leaving Afghanistan, Biden talked about his goal of focusing on China. And I expect we'll hear more about his foreign policy on Tuesday when he gives his first address at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

KING: NPR will have coverage of that. NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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