AUKUS deal: China looms large as Biden makes underwater moves with UK and Australia

San Diego

President Joe Biden was flanked by a 377ft submarine – the USS Missouri – on Monday as he announced an accelerated timetable for Australia to receive its own nuclear-powered submarines early in the next decade .

But the United States’ increasingly strained relationship with China, which has become a central feature of Biden’s presidency, loomed much higher. That relationship has been amplified in recent weeks by a host of world events, from the dramatic downing of a Chinese spy balloon to the revelation that Beijing is planning to arm Russia – all amid the unprecedented consolidation of power. of Chinese President Xi Jinping and a growing bipartisanship. consensus in Washington on the risks posed by China.

U.S. officials readily acknowledge that tensions with China are higher than they have been in recent years and that Beijing’s impassioned public rhetoric of late reflects the state of private relations. That’s why Biden’s multi-pronged China strategy has involved an attempt to normalize diplomatic relations even as the United States pursues policies like Monday’s submarine announcement aimed at countering the global influence of China. China and its military movements.

“Today, as we stand at the inflection point of history, where hard work to enhance deterrence and promote stability will affect the prospects for peace for decades to come, the United States United cannot ask for better partners in the Indo-Pacific, where much of our shared future will be written,” Biden said Monday, alongside his Australian and British counterparts.

The effort to reopen lines of communication with China, particularly between each country’s top military brass after the spy balloon incident, has shown no signs of progress, according to a senior administration official.

“On the contrary, China seems reluctant at this stage to move forward in establishing these dialogues and mechanisms,” the official said. “What we need are proper mechanisms between senior government officials, between the military, between different crisis managers on both sides to be able to communicate when there is something that is either accidental or just misinterpreted. ”

Against this backdrop, Biden faces a series of decisions in the coming weeks and months that could further exacerbate tensions, including imposing new restrictions on U.S. business investment in China and restricting or blocking U.S. operations. from the popular social media platform TikTok. , which is owned by a Chinese company. And in Beijing, Chinese officials must soon decide whether to display American warnings and start supplying lethal weapons to Russia in its war in Ukraine.

Monday’s update on the new trilateral defense partnership between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom is the latest step intended to counter China’s bid for naval dominance in the Indo-Pacific and, potentially, his plans to invade autonomous Taiwan. Australia will now receive its first of at least three advanced submarines early in the next decade, faster than expected when the AUKUS partnership launched 18 months ago, and US submarines like the USS Missouri meanwhile will pass through Australian ports.

“The United States has preserved stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades, to the enormous benefit of nations in the region, from ASEAN to Pacific Islanders to the People’s Republic of China,” Biden said during of his speech. “In fact, our leadership in the Pacific has benefited the whole world. We have kept the sea lanes and skies open and navigable for all. We followed the basic rules of the road.

His British counterpart was more explicit, citing China as a source of concern.

“China’s growing assertiveness, Iran’s and North Korea’s destabilizing behavior all threaten to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said. “In the face of this new reality, it is more important than ever to strengthen the resilience of our own countries.”

Even before Biden traveled to Naval Station Point Loma in California to announce the progress alongside the British and Australian prime ministers, China was quick to castigate the move as advancing a “Cold War mentality and zero-sum games.

The fact that China did not wait for the announcement itself to lash out shows how closely Beijing is watching Biden’s movements in the Pacific, where the US military is expanding its presence and helping other nations to modernize their fleets.

And it’s another example of Biden’s view of China as the primary long-term threat to global peace and stability, even as Russia’s war in Ukraine currently consumes diplomatic and military attention from states. -United.

The first shipment, due in 2032, will consist of three US Virginia-class attack submarines, designed to use a number of different weapons, including torpedoes and cruise missiles. Submarines can also transport special operations forces and perform intelligence and reconnaissance missions.

This will be followed in the 2040s by British-designed submarines, containing American technology, which will transform Australia’s underwater capabilities over the next 25 years.

Prior to that, US submarines will deploy on a rotational basis to Australia to begin training Australian crews on advanced technology, bolstering US defense posture in the region.

The submarines will not carry nuclear weapons and US, Australian and British officials have insisted the plans comply with international non-proliferation rules, despite Chinese protests.

The message sent by the announcement is unequivocal: the United States and its allies see China’s burgeoning naval ambitions as a major threat to their security and are preparing for a long-term fight. Already this year, the United States announced that it was expanding its military presence in the Philippines and welcomed the steps taken by Japan to strengthen its military.

“It’s profoundly consequential,” a senior administration official said of the AUKUS partnership. “The Chinese know it, they recognize it and they will want to engage accordingly.”

US officials said Britain’s participation in the new submarine project was a sign of Europe’s growing concerns over tensions in the Pacific – concerns that have emerged within NATO, then even as the alliance remains consumed by the war in Ukraine. And in conversations with European leaders over the past month, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday, Biden raised the issue of China in hopes of developing a coordinated approach.

The question now is whether China will choose to re-engage and improve diplomatic relations with the United States despite heightened tensions.

Successive phone calls and a face-to-face meeting with Xi in November have so far yielded only tentative progress in establishing what administration officials describe as a “floor” in the relationship.

Four months after that meeting, progress has largely stalled on reopening lines of communication between Washington and Beijing, once seen as the main outcome of the three-hour session in Bali. Speaking to CNN in late February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it had been months since he had spoken to his Chinese counterpart.

And public remarks from Chinese leaders, including Xi, have begun to sharpen over the past week, a sign that the confrontational approach of the past year is not waning.

Biden and his advisers largely downplayed the new high tone emanating from Beijing. Asked by CNN on Thursday what the new rebukes from Xi and Foreign Minister Qin Gang mean, Biden replied emphatically, “Not much.”

On Monday, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said a conversation between Biden and Xi would likely take place now that China’s National People’s Congress is over and a slate of Chinese officials will take up their new positions after the annual meeting of the buffer parliament.

“We said that when the National People’s Congress ends, as it is now, and the Chinese leaders return to Beijing, and then all these new officials take their new seats, because of course now you have a new set of numbers. in important leadership positions, we would expect President Biden and President Xi to have a conversation. So at some point in the period ahead,” Sullivan told reporters on board. of Air Force One.

He said no date has yet been set for a Xi-Biden phone call, but that Biden “has indicated his willingness to have a phone conversation with President Xi once they are back in stride. after the National People’s Congress”.

Tensions appeared to reach a new level last week after Xi directly chastised US policy as “complete containment, encirclement and repression against us”. Qin, in remarks the next day, defined the “competition” that Biden has long sought to define as being at the heart of the relationship between the two powers as “a reckless gamble.”

“If the United States does not brake but keeps accelerating on the wrong track, no guardrail can prevent the derailment, and there will surely be conflicts and confrontations,” Qin said.

A senior administration official acknowledged Xi’s recent rhetoric has been “more blunt” than in the past, but said the White House continues to believe that Xi will “want to sit down and engage in politics again.” higher level” now that he has completed his final consolidation of power.


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