“On the issue of China, let me just emphasize upfront – this agreement, this relationship is not aimed anything or anyone,” Austin told reporters during a joint press conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Australian foreign and defense ministers. “Its intent here is to help improve our bilateral cooperation and our capabilities across the board.
“And the first step is helping Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarine capability,” he added.
Austin’s comments come just one day after Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. entered into an agreement dubbed AUKUS that voided a 2016 submarine agreement between France and the Aussie nation.
The AUKUS alliance will instead grant the Indo-Pacific nation with highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology – a move widely seen as a direct challenge to China’s activity in the region.
Austin’s assurances however that the move was not in response to increased Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region, did not jive with the other comments made by the officials on stage with him.
“We have raised publically and privately our serious concerns about Beijing’s use of economic cohesion against Australia,” Blinken said. “We’ve made it clear that actions like these targeting our allies hinder improvements in our own relationship with the Chinese government.”
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne also said that China was a major factor in the new alliance and said the officials “discussed the strategic competition” as it relates to the communist nation.
“We discussed the competition of China on a number of levels that requires us to respond and to increase resilience,” Payne said. Though she added that acknowledging competition with China “does not mean that there are not constructive areas for engagement with China.”
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Australia’s alliance with the U.S. is its “most important” relationship “bar none.”
“It stands as a pillar of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” Dutton added.
In addition to supplying submarine technology, the U.S. will increase “air-cooperation” through “rotational deployments” of U.S. military aircraft to Australia, the defense minister said.
Dutton also said the situation in the Indo-Pacific region has led to “significant uncertainty” not seen in “any time since the Second World War.”
Dutton added later: “We’ve enjoyed peace since the Second World War and we want that to continue.”