Biden to host Australian, British leaders on AUKUS defence pact
By David Brunnstrom and Renju Jose
WASHINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden will host leaders of Australia and Britain in San Diego next week to chart a way forward for provision of nuclear-powered submarines and other high-tech weaponry to Australia, sources familiar with the plans said.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said before leaving on a visit to India on Wednesday he would visit the United States to meet Biden, but would not be drawn on plans for a summit with Biden and British Prime Minster Rishi Sunak to announce a way forward on the so-called AUKUS project.
Sources familiar with the planning said that trilateral summit would take place in San Diego on Monday to unveil new details of the 2021 AUKUS pact conceived as part of efforts to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.
"I look forward to the continuing engagement that I have with the U.S. administration," Albanese told reporters before departure for India, without giving a date for his U.S. trip.
Australia's ambassador to the United States Arthur Sinodinos said last week that details of the submarine deal would be announced in mid-March, but the three governments have declined comment on the specific time and place.
San Diego is home to the U.S. Pacific Fleet and a source familiar with the planning told Reuters the trilateral summit could involve a visit to a submarine.
While the United States and Britain have agreed to provide Australia with the technology to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, the three allies have yet to say exactly how the capability will be transferred to Australia, which does not have a nuclear-propulsion industry.
AUKUS will be Australia's biggest-ever defense project and offers the prospect of jobs in all three countries, but it remains unclear whether it will involve a U.S. or a British-designed submarine, or a combination of both, or when the vessels will become operational.
Australian defence industry speculation has centered on Australia opting for a British design, while Sinodinos said there would be a "genuine trilateral solution".
TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER CURBS
Despite an 18-month consultation period since AUKUS was first announced, questions remain over strict U.S. curbs on technology sharing needed for the project.
These are a particular concern for its so-called pillar two dealing with advanced technology programs such as artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons.
British and Australian officials said last week work was still needed to break down bureaucratic barriers to technology sharing in pillar two and the top Pentagon official for Asia, Ely Ratner, referred to "antiquated systems" governing U.S. technology.
Ratner said these needed to be revised "and we're in the process of doing so."
A State Department spokesperson said Washington was "actively working to reexamine and streamline our processes to optimize our defense trade in the AUKUS context," and added: "We do not anticipate any challenges in implementing AUKUS due to U.S. export-control regulations."
However, despite political will for reform in the Biden administration, experts question how easy it will for AUKUS to avoid the attentions of mid-level State Department bureaucrats duty bound to protect U.S. defense technology.
Ashley Townshend, an Australian Defense expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, said a new information-sharing agreement would be needed for the submarine program's implementation stage.
"I have no doubt that this will happen," he said. "But unless the agreement covers every single technology and defense service that the submarine program will involve, over the course of its lifetime, it won't be immune to bureaucratic and regulatory constraints."
Some experts believe the AUKUS announcement could include plans to station U.S. and British nuclear submarines in Australia to train Australian crews and fill a capability gap until the new Australia submarines are in service, which is not expected until about 2040.
Albanese will reach India later on Wednesday and will stay until Saturday in the first visit by an Australian prime minister since 2017.
(Reporting by Renju Jose and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Kirsty Needham, Joel Schectman and Steve Holland; Editing by Edmund Klamann, Stephen Coates and Lincoln Feast)