A top adviser to Joe Biden has refused to say whether the US is comfortable with the way the Australian government handled talks with France ahead of the unveiling of the new Aukus submarines deal.
Jake Sullivan, the US president’s national security adviser, said there was no point dwelling on the “challenges” surrounding the announcement of the new security partnership between the US, the UK and Australia, saying that “will be interesting for the historians to do at some point”.
Sullivan also said on Thursday the Biden administration would engage in “stiff competition” with China but there was no reason that had to “turn into conflict or confrontation”.
Addressing a webinar hosted by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Sullivan said the Biden administration had agreed to share sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Australia to send a signal to allies that “if you bet with us, we will bet with you”.
France said in September it had been “stabbed in the back” by its friends and allies over the cancellation of Australia’s previous $90bn deal for French conventionally powered submarines in favour of the so-called Aukus partnership.
In an attempt to mend ties, Biden told the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in Rome late last month that Aukus was handled clumsily and that he thought France had been informed earlier about the cancellation of the Australian submarine contract.
It was unclear whether Biden was talking about the Australian government or his own staff or both.
Sullivan was asked by the Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove whether the Biden administration was comfortable with the way that Canberra had handled the Aukus announcement.
He replied that he would “dodge” the question because “there’s no profit in revisiting how we got to where we are”.
Sullivan acknowledged “that we have had to go through some challenges in dealing with the rollout” and the US had therefore sought to “engage intensively diplomatically with the French”.
He said the US had put forward “a very strong and meaningful and substantive plan of action with the French on a range of issues, including relating to the Indo-Pacific” and it was time to get “digging in on the real work of Aukus”.
“Where I sit today, the good news lies ahead, and we are going to redeem the vision our leaders laid out and it’s going to be an incredibly positive thing for our countries,” Sullivan said.
“Going back through all the ins and outs of this will be interesting for the historians to do at some point, but as national security adviser I’ve got to keep sort of my eyes firmly fixed on the present and future.”
Under the Aukus security partnership, announced in mid-September with much fanfare, the US, the UK and Australia will work together on issues including cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities.
The first project is an 18-month joint study to find “the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia”.
Apart from the immediate concerns about the diplomatic fallout with France, observers and politicians in Australia have raised concerns about Australia facing a “capability gap”, given the first submarines are not likely to be in the water until about 2040.
The former Australian prime minister Paul Keating said on Wednesday the plan was “like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain”.
Sullivan said three countries were “deeply committed now to doing the actual work to make this happen in a way that delivers on the vision that our leaders laid out when they did the virtual event together back in September”.
He said the US had agreed to share nuclear propulsion technology with Australia – more than 60 years after it shared it with the UK – to boost “our collective, combined capacity to produce greater stability, security and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region”.
“It’s about a statement of putting your money where your mouth is, when it comes to the rhetoric around alliances.”
In broader remarks, Sullivan attempted to allay concerns about the Biden administration’s approach amid increasing tensions with China.
He said the US would “compete vigorously” with China in a number of areas, including economics and technology, and would “stand up for our values”.
But he said the US understood the need to “responsibly and collectively” manage the relationship. China and the US announced on Wednesday a surprise plan to work together on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
“All of this talk of the United States and China going into a new cold war, or that we’re on our way to conflict, or the Thucydides Trap – we have the choice not to do that,” Sullivan said.
Years after the Trump administration pulled the US out of what was then called the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Sullivan said the Biden administration wanted to develop “a full, robust, attractive economic agenda to go along with our security and geopolitical agenda in the Indo-Pacific”.
Sullivan said that strategy would address the kinds of modern challenges that Covid-19 exposed, “whether it’s in the realm of supply chains, or the intersection of climate and trade, or digital, or investment screening and export controls, across a number of areas that have not traditionally been part of trade agreements”.
He said the US wanted to get “a whole bunch of countries aligned around that” vision. The US trade representative, Katherine Tai, and the US commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, would visit Australia, New Zealand, south-east Asia and north-east Asia in the weeks ahead.