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Why the U.S.-Australia agreement on a nuclear submarine project is a big deal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When China's president visited Russia this week, he was cementing one of his country's few important alliances in the world. The United States has a lot of alliances that it tries to organize against China. This month, the U.S. advanced an arms deal and a lot more with both the U.K. and Australia. They're moving forward with the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Charles Edel has an idea how important this deal is. He works for a Washington, D.C., think tank. Although, when we reached him, he was away from the office.

CHARLES EDEL: I'm in New York chaperoning a bunch of 10-year-olds at Model UN.

INSKEEP: One question, are they discussing the recent submarine deal between the U.S., U.K. and Australia?

EDEL: Well, we have one precocious 10-year-old who is holding forth Gabon's position about how he supports it, yes.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I didn't know that Gabon has a view, but I'm glad to hear.

Charles Edel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told us he could help analyze that deal so long as we finished in time for him to meet the kids he was supervising.

EDEL: Submarines are only the tip of the iceberg here. We're also talking about a series of collaborations in cyber, in artificial intelligence, in quantum, on unmanned underwater vehicles, a host of different technologies.

INSKEEP: Why does the United States care that much about Australia?

EDEL: The Australians like to say, and we tend to agree, that they are just about our most trusted ally in the world. And because they've been leaned on so heavily by Beijing in terms of economic coercion, we're really interested in what they're doing. While America has a ton of allies and even more partners around the world, we have a much narrower list of those who are both capable and willing to make sure that they step up to provide stability for the region.

INSKEEP: Assuming this deal works as intended - it'll take many years for all the submarines to be delivered - what does the United States ultimately get out of it?

EDEL: We're going to start by putting more U.S. and British submarines in the region. We're then going to sell some submarines. And eventually, we're going to transition to the Australians building their own submarines based on a British model. But ultimately, what we're hoping to achieve is to have a much stronger ally. And having stronger allies overall enhances our collective deterrence efforts, our collective security and will help stabilize a region that over the past decade has been badly destabilized by China's increasingly aggressive actions.

INSKEEP: What form does that take? And what is China trying to do?

EDEL: Well, there are a lot of different forms it takes. For the Australians, the one that has stuck out most for them is that starting in 2020, the Chinese began to attempt to economically coerce Australia. Australia is the most trade-dependent advanced nation in the world on China. As much as 40% of their exports went to China at one point. And because the Chinese were upset with Australia, they began stopping the import of Australian goods across the board. Beyond that, of course, the Chinese have consistently interfered in the domestic politics of Australia, reaching into their ethnic communities, attempting to bribe Australian politicians. But it's the larger set of things that I think - on the military side that we're concerned about, the explosive growth of the Chinese military and the increasingly aggressive use that it's been put to in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

INSKEEP: When you say going into the ethnic communities in China, are you referring to the Chinese diaspora? You'll find Chinese people in many, many places. And China wants to use them as an asset, you think?

EDEL: Yeah. Consistently we've seen the Chinese state has worked to coerce citizens of Australia who are ethnically Chinese who express viewpoints that are contrary to the Chinese government. I think a wake-up moment in Australia was when a visiting Chinese official told Labor Party officials that they needed to support an extradition law with China. If they didn't, it would be too bad if the entire Chinese population in Australia started to vote against the Labor Party.

INSKEEP: As best you can determine the motivations of Chinese leaders, do you think that they view Australia as a country they should move out of the U.S. column and into the Chinese column, that it should be dominated by China because it's right there, in Chinese terms, anyway, in their region?

EDEL: I think from Beijing's perspective, Australia is a bit of a puzzling case because it's a smaller state and because they have prospered. It doesn't exactly make sense from a Chinese perspective why the Australians have asserted their own sovereignty quite so strongly. And frankly, I think the reason why you've seen such anger emanating from Beijing is not so much what Australia has done, but the fact that Australia, as a middle-sized democratic power, has set an alternative example about how states can stand up, protect their own sovereignty and not simply buck to the demands of the Chinese state.

INSKEEP: Charles Edel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much.

EDEL: Thanks so much for having me on, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.