Defence minister Christopher Pyne and Prime Ministers Scott Morrison sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement at Sir Thomas Blamey Square on February 11, 2019 in Canberra, Australia.
CANBERRA - Australia formally signed an Aus$50-billion "strategic partnership" with France to build 12 state of the art submarines on Monday, a signal of Canberra's willingness to project power across the Pacific.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed the "very audacious plan" at a ceremony in Canberra as "part of Australia's biggest ever peace-time investment in defence".
The partnership's main pillar is a contract for France's Naval Group -- a consortium with state backing -- to build 12 attack-class submarines and has been years in the making.
At roughly US$35-billion this is Australia's largest ever defence procurement project and the largest ever foreign sales deal by French shipbuilder Naval Group.
The first submarine is expected to be finished in the early 2030s, starting with sea trials around the first quarter of 2031 and operational testing in late 2032.
Critics say that is too late: the waters to Australia's north and east are the scene of an intense struggle between the United States, China and regional powers, who are all vying for influence.
Beijing has made territorial claims to much of the South China Sea -- a marine thoroughfare that is vital to maintain the supply of ores, minerals and crude that fuel the Chinese economy.
Washington fears that China is becoming increasingly assertive over those claims to display its dominance over smaller Asian nations and become the prime regional power.
Australian military analysts hope the subs will allow the country to maintain a credible deterrent against possible hostile actions.
Naval Group chairman Herve Guillou said Australia chose the French submarine design because of its endurance, long range and acoustic superiority.