On Monday in San Diego, President Joe Biden met with his Australian and British counterparts and announced what amounts to one of the most significant shifts in U.S. security policy in decades. Standing atop the USS Missouri, a Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarine docked at the U.S. Naval Base Point Loma and facing the Pacific Ocean, the three leaders announced the way forward for AUKUS, the trilateral defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
That announcement came almost eighty years ago to the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act into law. That act allowed the United States to lend or lease defense materials to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” The United States shipped more than $50 billion worth of equipment to supply Moscow, Beijing, Paris, and London in their warfighting efforts, and ultimately helped them prevail in their struggle against totalitarian forces in World War II. After Lend-Lease had become official American policy, Roosevelt declared that “here in Washington, we are thinking in terms of speed and speed now.” What was true for Roosevelt’s America, is true today. For AUKUS to matter, it will need to move from conception to reality at full speed.
The big news out of the leaders’ meeting all revolves around submarines—America and the United Kingdom will increase the frequency of their port visits to Australia, the United States will start a rotational deployment of submarines to Australia within the next several years, Washington will sell Australia three to five of its Virginia-class attack submarines, and ultimately, Australia will begin building submarines that are British-designed and loaded with American technology and weapons systems.
What was revealed yesterday, however, is significantly more ambitious than that. AUKUS, it turns out, is about much more than submarines, and more than even a trilateral defense partnership. Fundamentally, it represents a bet that by integrating industrial capacities and increasing interoperability between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, the capabilities of two of America’s closest allies will become much more powerful, and that will ultimately change Beijing’s calculations about its security environment. The real goal here is to stabilize a region that has been deeply destabilized by China’s rapid expansion of its military capabilities and increasingly aggressive foreign policy.
Over the past decade, Beijing has built up a formidable military arsenal. Growing capabilities, both quantitative and qualitative, have abetted an expanding set of goals and resulted in growing concern in the region. Once content to shelve territorial disputes with its neighbors, Beijing now uses its strengthened military to increasingly lean on, intimidate, and attack neighboring states while it seizes disputed territory, builds military bases and outposts throughout the region, and projects its power further afield. Most observers now believe that China may eventually be looking to weaken American alliances in the region and push U.S. forces and bases out of Asia altogether.
Any serious response to China's actions needs to increase allied capabilities, diversify U.S. force posture, and underscore that the United States and its allies are willing to push back against Beijing's destabilizing activities. If what was announced in San Diego can be pulled off, and pulled off in a timely manner, it has the potential to accomplish those goals by putting more ships in, and under, the water throughout the Indo-Pacific. This would add to the combined nuclear-powered submarine forces of the three nations; negate some of Beijing’s local advantages by increasing the range, power, and stealth of the allied presence; and reinforce that these three nations are willing to work collectively to deter future acts of Chinese aggression.
AUKUS is the most substantial response yet to China's rapidly expanding military power—and a harbinger of where American and allied strategy will need to go. It is a public declaration that the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom are aligning their strategies more closely in order to ensure that they are sufficiently armed and able to push back against acts of aggression in the future.
It also has the potential to transform the industrial shipbuilding capacity of all three nations, accelerate technological integration, change the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, and, ultimately, transform the model of how the United States works with and empowers its closest allies.
Of course, this new agreement brings risks too—the weight of its ambitions alone might sink those submarines. On top of those great expectations lies a challenging road ahead to bring AUKUS from concept to reality. That includes maintaining bipartisan support for this initiative in all three countries over multiple decades; ensuring sufficiently large investments are made into the industrial base and shipbuilding capacity of all three nations; finding, training, and retaining more scientists, shipbuilders, and nuclear-trained submariners; changing the way the United States shares and Australia protects sensitive technology; and pulling this all off in a way that begins providing deterrence now—not a decade from now.
Much has changed since 1941 when Roosevelt described Lend Lease as an initiative to provide “aid to democracies,” and declared that the country had awoken from a long slumber to “realize the danger that confronts us.” Neither China nor Russia is an ally today. This time, the United States is not giving, but selling, its most advanced technology. And thankfully, the world is not at war. But the logic that held then, holds now. Stronger allies, working together, have the best chance of defending themselves, deterring further acts of aggression, and preserving peace.
AUKUS has the potential to play a tremendous role in defense, in deterrence, and in the maintenance of peace. The question that remains is whether the governments, legislatures, and industries of the three nations can proceed with “speed and speed now.”
Charles Edel is the inaugural Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, he was an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and worked in the Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning.