The United States will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new Indo-Pacific strategic alliance also including Britain, a US official said Wednesday.
The announcement -- due to be made shortly in a video meeting by President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his British counterpart Boris Johnson -- could infuriate France, which has been negotiating a multi-billion-dollar sale of conventional submarines to Australia.
That deal will probably now be scrapped, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 3-way partnership, dubbed AUKUS, is a "historic" new piece in Washington's growing focus on the region, where China is challenging decades of US leadership and naval dominance.
What the Biden administration official called an alliance of "maritime democracies" will combine the three countries' forces on "cyber, AI -- particularly applied AI, quantum technologies and some undersea capabilities as well."
AUKUS' first initiative, however, will be "to support Australia's desire to acquire nuclear-powered submarines," the official said, stressing this does not mean nuclear weapons.
"Australia does not seek and will not seek nuclear weapons. This is about nuclear powered submarines."
Technical and naval representatives from the three countries will spend the next 18 months deciding how to carry out Australia's upgrade.
The Biden administration official underlined repeatedly how "unique" the decision is, with Britain being the only other country the United States has ever helped to build a nuclear fleet.
"This technology is extremely sensitive," the official said. "We view this as a one-off."
- Stealth and interoperability -
Although the official would not directly name a rising China as the reason for the US move, the intentions of AUKUS are clear.
"It's meant to send a message of reassurance and a determination to maintain a strong deterrent stance into the 21st century," the official said.
Even if not carrying nuclear weapons, the new submarines will allow Australia to "play at a much higher level," the official said.
"Nuclear powered submarines really maintain superior characteristics of stealth, speed, maneuverability, survivability and really substantial endurance," the official said.
"You will see much deeper interoperability along our navies and our nuclear infrastructure," the official said. "This is a fundamental decision, fundamental. It binds Australia... and the United States and Great Britain for generations. This is the biggest strategic step that Australia's taken in generations."
- French deal in peril -
It was not immediately clear where the development leaves the 90 billion Australian dollars (roughly $66 billion) French deal, which was personally backed by President Emmanuel Macron.
France's Naval Group agreed to build 12 conventional Attack Class subs, but the order is already years behind schedule, well over budget and has become tangled in Australian domestic politics.
As recently as June, Macron promised "full and complete" commitment to the deal. A top Australian defense official said around the same time, however, that Australia was actively considering alternatives.
Australian officials said then that the potential plan B was classified but indicated the issue had been taken more seriously in recent months and included submarines and other vessels.
The AUKUS announcement comes as Australia has been boosting defense spending in response to China's more assertive posture.
Morrison will join Biden again on September 24, this time in person, at a first White House gathering of the "Quad" diplomatic group -- Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
FROM THE ARCHIVES