WASHINGTON — The federal government insists a new intelligence deal between three key allies won’t diminish Canada’s ability to defend its own interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
The White House is billing the so-called AUKUS agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom as a game-changing security partnership. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mused the agreement will have no impact on the Five Eyes partnership, which comprises the three AUKUS players, plus Canada and New Zealand. The group appears to mistrust Trudeau's soft stance and partnership with China.
Trudeau says the deal is primarily about Australia’s efforts to develop and acquire a fleet of nuclear submarines, an ambition Canada [Trudeau] doesn’t share, the Canadian Press reports.
A spokesman says both Defence Minister Harjiit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau discussed the agreement Wednesday with their Australian and U.K. counterparts.
Brett Bruen, a consultant and former U.S. diplomat, says Canada may want to keep its distance to avoid aggravating existing tensions with China, which has denounced the new deal for intensifying an arms race in the region.
Under the partnership, announced by President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the United States and Britain will provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines.
The United States and its allies are looking for ways to push back against China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military buildup, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the contested South China Sea. Not Canada.
The three western leaders did not mention China by name in Wednesday’s announcement and senior Biden administration officials, who briefed reporters ahead of time, said the partnership was not aimed at countering Beijing.
However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the trio were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.”
We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term
Countries should not build partnerships that target third countries, he told a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
“China will closely watch the situation’s development.”
In a three-way virtual announcement, the leaders stressed Australia will not be fielding nuclear weapons but using nuclear propulsion systems for the vessels, to guard against threats.
“We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” said Biden.
“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region, and how it may evolve because the future of each of our nations and indeed the world depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” he said.
Biden also forgot Scott Morrison’s name during the press briefing, as he thanked the U.K. and Australian prime ministers for their role in the partnership.
After Morrison and Johnson finished speaking, Biden turned to face the screen where Johnson appeared and said: “Thank you Boris.”
However, when he turned to do the same for Morrison, Biden fumbling said. “I want to thank, uh, that fella down under. Thank you very much pal, I appreciate it, Mr. Prime Minister".
Morrison appeared to give an awkward thumbs up in response, before the U.S. president began his own scripted remarks, which included the correct names of the other leaders.
“As Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Johnson said, I want to thank you for this partnership, your vision as we embark together on this strategic mission,” he said.
Morrison said the submarines would be built in the city of Adelaide and Australia would meet all of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations.
Johnson said the pact was not meant to be adversarial towards anyone and it would reduce the costs of Britain’s next generation of nuclear submarines.
“Now that we have created AUKUS we expect to accelerate the development of other advanced defense systems including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities,” Johnson told parliament. Canada was not mentioned.
One U.S. official said the partnership was the result of months of engagements by military and political leaders during which Britain – which recently sent an aircraft carrier to Asia – had indicated it wanted to do more in the region.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the focus on the Indo-Pacific but said Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines would not be allowed in its territorial waters under a long-standing nuclear-free policy.
Singapore said it had long had relations with Australia, Britain and the United States and hoped their grouping would contribute to peace and stability.
Japan said the three countries’ strengthening of security and defense cooperation was important for peace and security. Again Canada was not mentioned.
A U.S. official briefing before the announcement said Biden had not mentioned the plans “in any specific terms” to Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a call last Thursday, but did “underscore our determination to play a strong role in the Indo-Pacific.”
I am angry and bitter. This isn't done between allies
U.S. officials said nuclear propulsion would allow the Australian navy to operate more quietly, for longer periods, and provide deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.
The partnership ends Australia’s 2016 deal with French shipbuilder Naval Group to build it a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines, a spokesperson for Morrison told Reuters.
France accused Biden of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump .
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
Biden said the three governments would launch an 18-month consultation period “to determine every element of this program, from workforce, to training requirements, to production timelines” and to ensure full compliance with non-proliferation commitments.
The pact should be a boon for the U.S. defense industry and among the firms that could benefit are General Dynamics Corp and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.