Arms race in the Indo-Pacific: Australia as an alternative to the US base on Guam?

A military confrontation between the USA and the emerging world power China in the Indo-Pacific seems inevitable. US and British militaries are building nuclear weapons in the region, hoping to draw Australia into the conflict against Beijing.

The US, UK and Australia have announced plans to base nuclear-powered submarines in Western Australia to use the South Pacific area as an alternative to the US strategic base on Guam.

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The US, Great Britain and Australia launched the AUKUS security alliance in September 2021 to “strengthen security and military deterrence in the Indo-Pacific”. According to the reports, the three states agreed on a concrete timetable for equipping Canberra with a nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

The Insider recently reported that US and British submarines will soon be operating out of Australia, giving allies greater reach and presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where US-China rivalries are mounting. In March 2023, President Joe Biden, his British and Australian counterparts announced a timeline for Australia to acquire new nuclear-powered submarines. According to the plans, the country should first receive US-made submarines in the early 2030s and then the first Australian-made boats in the early 2040s.

In the next few years, US and British submarines will therefore dock more frequently in Australia. From 2027, a fleet of submarines – one British and up to four US fighter submarines – will be stationed at the Australian naval base HMAS Stirling near the city of Perth on the Indian Ocean coast.

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Australian naval facilities, where the US and UK plan to station Virginia- and Astute-class attack submarines, are relatively out of range of potential missile attacks. According to experts, the Australian military bases are thus supporting the US base on Guam if the latter is attacked by Chinese or North Korean missiles.

Guam is a hub for the United States Air Force. However, US dependence on its base at Guam is likely to make US naval operations in the Pacific particularly vulnerable. A possible loss of Guam in a conflict scenario would severely limit the pace of US submarine operations in the region, forcing the submarines to travel longer distances for resupply.

However, it remains to be feared that the new plans to station nuclear submarines in Western Australia by 2027 will significantly undermine existing safeguards against US nuclear proliferation.

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