How U.S., UK and Australia plan to counter China’s rise through strategic partnership

Wednesday evening at the White House, President Joe Biden — joined by the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia — announced a new partnership in the Indo-Pacific region, including an effort to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. The one unspoken issue clearly driving this move: a rising China. Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff with more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This evening at the White House, President Biden, joined by the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia, announced a new partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.

    Chief among the announcements, an effort to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. The one issue not mentioned by the three leaders, but clearly driving this move, a rising China.

    Our foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin, is here with me now with more.

    And, Nick, tell it was that the president and the two prime ministers announced.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, so, this was what they called a landmark defense and security partnership known as AUKUS, Australia, U.K., U.S.

    This is about sharing technology, sharing defense industries and cooperating militarily. They talked about defending shared interests. But, as you just said, they didn't mention China. But this is about defending shared interests against a rising China.

    Take a listen to President Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who appeared at the White House virtually.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Our nations will update and enhance our shared ability to take on the threats of the 21st century, just as we did in the 20th century, together.

    Our nations and our brave fighting forces have stood shoulder to shoulder for literally more than 100 years, through the trench fighting in World War I, the island hopping in World War II, during the frigid winters in Korea, and the scorching heat of the Persian Gulf.

  • Scott Morrison, Australian Prime Minister:

    AUKUS, a partnership where our technology, our scientists, our industry, our defense forces are all working together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is a giant, strategic step for Australia, Judy.

    I asked Alan Tidwell, who directs the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown, how significant this was for Australia to decide this.

    And he said it was the most important announcement, most important decision that Australia has made since the early '50s, since the Australia-New Zealand-U.S. treaty.

  • Alan Tidwell, Georgetown University:

    This is a significant this is a significant upgrading of the alliance between the United States and Australia and a significant statement about the role that Australia envisions for itself and the United States in the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, increasingly, that role is the united one, Judy, the U.S. and Australia against China.

    For Australia, the U.S. becomes closer to them and the alliance with the U.S. becomes more resilient. And the U.S. gets an ally that is much more capable of deterring China on its own.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how is the United States doing that militarily?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is the premier announcement today, what you said, nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines for Australia.

    This is some of the U.S.' most trusted, most secret technology. The U.S. has historically refused to provide this technology to anyone, including its partners. In fact, the only time the U.S. has ever shared this technology was with the U.K. more than 70 years ago.

    Australia currently has diesel electric submarines. So it's a big investment for them to switch to nuclear submarines. And those nuclear submarines, nuclear-powered submarines, will allow them to deploy farther, deploy more stealthily, stay in strategically important areas, like the South China Sea, like Southeast Asia, even as far as Taiwan that China has been using territorial claims throughout that region, as Tidwell said again to me.

  • Alan Tidwell:

    And so it could be that one day China decides that it wants to curtail the transshipment of Australian ships or other vessels through that region.

    And Australia has to protect those vessels. And so what better way to do it than with a submarine? And so I think that it is — it's based upon, in part, Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. And they have created a problem that is really leaving Australia with very few choices about how it proceeds in the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And China has not only expanded its claims in the South China Sea.

    It's tried to punish Australia for steps it's taken, one, to block Chinese 5G from coming into Australia, and, two, calling for simply an investigation into the origins of COVID.

    China is Australia's number one trading partner, Judy. And yet today is clearly a sign that Australia's deciding strategically that the future is with the U.S. to counter China.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you say, this is a big move that's happening.

    What are the people you talk to say they expect China to do in response?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They're not going to respond well.

    This will only reinforce what China already believes is happening, which is the U.S. is trying to contain China using what China calls gangs, as in the U.S. and its partners are ganging up on China.

    But the Chinese experts I spoke to actually today said — they pointed out that, look, the Chinese Australia relationship is already bad. China's wrath may actually be pointed to London. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was part of this announcement. China has not punished London economically yet.

    But even though the experts say that this is a response to Chinese behavior, that the U.S. and Australia are creating this greater military alliance in order to counter Chinese behavior, there is no sign that China has any intention of changing its own behavior.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Significant developments, and Nick Schifrin reporting on all that.

    And, meantime, our Yamiche Alcindor was at the White House in the room where the president spoke, and she joins me now.

    So, Yamiche, how does this announcement, this set of steps fit in with all the other international challenges the president's facing right now, in particular, Afghanistan?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president, of course, is facing a number of challenges on the foreign and domestic front.

    In the room, the president really had this spirit of optimism, this idea that this new agreement was going to be him turning the page a bit, and really focusing on what he wants to talk about, which is really working with U.S. allies, as well as — even though he didn't mention China, as Nick just said, also really focusing on how to compete better with China.

    That said, Afghanistan didn't come up. But there were questions shouted, including from myself and other reporters, as President Biden walked away without taking questions. So that tells you, that while the president wants to talk about this new agreement with the U.K. and Australia, chief among people's minds is still on the issue of Afghanistan and the withdrawal and the chaos and the people we left behind.

    Another note is, on the domestic front, the president also sat down with two senators who Democrats are eying very closely. And those senators, of course, are Senator Manchin, as well as Senator Sinema, Senator Manchin, of course, being from West Virginia, Sinema being from Arizona.

    These are two Republicans — these are two Democratic senators who Democrats really want to try to get on board on this reconciliation bill. It's sort of what they have been calling a human infrastructure package. It's a $3.5 trillion deal, the president really trying to get them on board. So we will have to see what happens there.

    The other thing that the White House tells me is that they're very focused on COVID and talking about that. So this really shows you that the White House does not want to be talking about Afghanistan right now, but it's still, of course, top of mind.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot on the president's plate today.

    Yamiche Alcindor reporting from the White House.

    Thank you, Yamiche.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

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