Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Friday said the new trilateral security partnership formed by the U.S., U.K. and Australia, which includes assisting Australia’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines, will specifically help in building up capability to deter growing threats from China.

Hicks’ comments arrived about two weeks after the new AUKUS security partnership was detailed, with White House officials at the time not specifically citing China as a direct reason for creating the new defense pact.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks reacts to the start of her Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C. Feb. 2, 2021. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

“The Chinese are advancing their capabilities at a remarkable clip. Those capabilities include, of course, undersea capabilities. But even beyond what they’re doing in the undersea [space], it’s a very clear pattern of expanding out the geographic range of their capability to deny other interested parties, whether that’s around Japan, whether that’s around, in the case of the United States, Guam or even Hawaii. If you’re Australia, it includes, of course, expanding out now and getting close to Australia [and] the ability to threaten their interests,” Hicks said during a Center for Strategic & International Studies discussion.

The new AUKUS pact will include an 18-month effort where the U.S. and U.K. will work with Australia to inform how the country will pursue its first nuclear-powered submarines (Defense Daily, Sept. 15). 

Ahead of the AUKUS rollout, a senior administration official told reporters the partnership was “not aimed at or about any one country,” and said it was formed with the goal of “upholding the international rules-based order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

Hicks, however, pointed directly to China’s “rhetoric and growing capabilities” as a key catalyst for establishing AUKUS and ensuring the U.S. and its allies have the necessary capability to deter potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.

“The fact that the United States and the U.K. and Australia are coming together around this issue set just demonstrates how the opinions in the region, in the Western Pacific, are shifting and, honestly in Europe [as well], with regards to how serious this Chinese challenge is. And the rhetoric of President XI is as aggressive, frankly, as his actual capability,” Hicks said. “In past years, we might have said we see their capability growth, we’re not sure what their intentions are. Now, [China’s] being pretty clear about their intentions and we’re seeing their capability growth. And the lights are going on now in many places, and I think one of those places is Australia.”

The administration and the Pentagon have detailed China’s role as a “pacing threat,” with Hicks noting that AUKUS will also focus on efforts to collaborate around advanced technology areas such as quantum computing and cyber to maintain capability overmatch.

“Our goal is not to have any armed conflict with China, it is to reduce tension and demonstrate a credible deterrent so they are not tempted, with this rhetoric and this capability, to overreach,” Hicks said.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday on Thursday said last week the effort to design, build, support and properly oversee Australia’s fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines under a new deal may take decades (Defense Daily, Sept. 23).