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Biden to talk submarine tech and China with the leaders of Britain and Australia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Countering China at sea - that's the focus for a meeting today between President Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. At a Navy base in San Diego, the three leaders are expected to announce the latest in a long-term plan for their countries to share submarine technology. Their pact is called AUKUS, a mashup of Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. And it's all about facing up to China. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is traveling with the president, and we spoke with him before they left.

So what's the AUKUS deal - I mean, an awkward name - supposed to achieve?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: AUKUS, yes. Officials can use vague terms when they're talking about this main goal, but really, it comes down to building up military strength in the Pacific to deter China from doing things like attacking Taiwan. And Biden has created several new partnerships to counter or compete with China in recent years. And the long-term goal of this particular one is to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. It's important to clarify here - we are not talking about nuclear warheads on submarines. We are talking about nuclear power running the submarines. And the big advantage that nuclear-powered subs have is that they go a lot further without surfacing. And sharing nuclear technology is an incredibly rare thing that the U.S. does. This has only happened one other time with the United Kingdom, the uk (ph) in the AUKUS, back in 1958.

FADEL: So what kind of update can we expect to hear today?

DETROW: So the heads of the three countries first announced the big long-term goals of this partnership in September 2021, and at that time Biden said they would give themselves 18 months to work out the details and the specifics of making this happen. And here we are 18 months later. So we can expect them to announce the timeline for building new submarines for Australia that combine American and British nuclear technology. And then in the coming years, we can likely expect more American and British submarines to visit Australia and operate out of its ports, according to reports about this announcement. And remember, this is a very long-term project. We're talking decades and decades and decades. And that's really underscored by the fact that the men Biden will be standing with today are not the same prime ministers that he struck the deal with. Both Australia and the U.K. have seen turnover since then.

FADEL: Right. And they'll certainly be talking about how great they think this all is. But are there downsides?

DETROW: Yeah, there are definitely downsides. This deal has already created some major international blowback. You may remember Australia had been set to buy new submarines from France, and it canceled that deal after this agreement came...

FADEL: Yeah, that's right.

DETROW: ...Into place. And that made French President Emmanuel Macron furious. He went as far to briefly recall France's ambassador to the U.S. And I covered the meeting in Rome where Biden essentially apologized to Macron for not giving France more of a heads-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: What happened was - to use an English phrase, what we did was clumsy. It was not done with a lot of grace.

DETROW: And more broadly and more consequently looking forward, this is at its heart, as we've been talking about, a military agreement made with China in mind. And it comes at a time of increasing tension between the U.S. and China. China's President Xi Jinping has talked about his worries the U.S. is, quote, "encircling" China in recent days, and this will likely add to that. And there's a risk at this moment to cement plans to increase the U.S. military presence in the Pacific, especially with so much less communication between Chinese and American officials due to all of that tension.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Detrow. Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.