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U.S., U.K. and Australia aim to counter China with an exchange of submarine tech

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Countering China is a growing goal for the United States. That's why the U.S. is bulking up its naval presence in the Pacific. And it wants countries like the U.K. and Australia to do the same. So they now have a long-term agreement to share nuclear submarine technology. It's been in the works a year and a half. And as NPR's Scott Detrow reports, yesterday's kickoff came amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: President Biden basked in the San Diego sun flanked by the prime ministers of Australia and the U.K. A nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Missouri, was moored behind them.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don't know that our friends can hear. But the USS Missouri, can you hear us?

DETROW: The three men were there to detail the timeline of their new military collaboration called AUKUS.

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BIDEN: AUKUS. It's an unusual name, AUKUS. But it's a powerful entity.

DETROW: It's a mashup of Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. And the centerpiece of the decades-long plan is getting nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. They're strategically important because they can spend a long time underwater, making them stealthier. Australia plans to buy several of them from the U.S. And by the 2040s, the three nations will have built a brand-new submarine together. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

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PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: This is the first time in 65 years and only the second time in history that the United States has shared its nuclear propulsion technology. And we thank you for it.

DETROW: The deal is more than just a military sale. There's a broader strategic goal at play.

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BIDEN: AUKUS has one overriding objective, to enhance the stability in the Indo-Pacific amid rapidly shifting global dynamics.

DETROW: That's essentially diplomatic language for putting more military strength into the Pacific in order to deter China. Though, during their joint appearance, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was the only leader to directly talk about what he framed as China's growing assertiveness.

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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: Faced with this new reality, it is more important than ever that we strengthen the resilience of our own countries.

DETROW: The announcement comes at a moment of rising tension and suspicious rhetoric in both countries. In the U.S. Congress, it's one of the few areas where there's bipartisan support. Here's Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher at a recent hearing.

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MIKE GALLAGHER: We may call this a strategic competition, but it's not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century.

DETROW: Chinese officials are sounding similar lately. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently warned that the U.S. was engaged in containment, encirclement and suppression. This all has many China-U.S. experts worried. Ali Wyne is an analyst with the Eurasia Group. He says all this internal pressure to be tough means the U.S. and China just aren't talking to each other as much right now.

ALI WYNE: The less diplomacy you have, the greater the risk there is of a military accident, a military miscalculation.

DETROW: National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan concedes the U.S. is concerned about the state of the military channels between the two countries, a place where officials can quickly sort out these kinds of issues. But he says the U.S. and the Chinese government are still communicating.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: And we have directly engaged with China to explain to them what AUKUS is and what it is not.

DETROW: In brief exchanges with reporters Monday, Biden said he was confident China would not view the submarine deal as an act of aggression. And he says he does have plans to get on the phone again with Xi soon. Though, he wouldn't say exactly when that conversation will take place.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.