Australia is building a nuclear-powered submarine with the help of the United States and Great Britain, raising the stakes in the already volatile South China Sea.

The move was announced by US President Joe Biden after a virtual meeting with the British and Australian leaders, but the decision was met with muted response from countries in the region.

European allies, particularly France, did not like it, saying it was like stabbing Paris in the back as it was left out of the deal, which shook the Western alliance to counter Beijing’s creeping influence in the Asia and Pacific.

China countered with an even more effective weapon — trade — the impact of which would be immediately felt by countries around the world.

Of course, security is very important in a country’s existence but most people worry about food, livelihood, and jobs more than missiles, submarines and fighters.

China’s intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could swing the balance away from the United States and Japan as Beijing has more ammunition to spare in expanding its economic influence, including arm-twisting tactics in trade as seen lately in the Australian beef export dispute.

China is stepping up its aggressive behavior in the disputed maritime waters where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods pass every year, including precious oil and gas that run the economic engines of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

China is trying to choke the important waterway by imposing a new maritime domestic law that requires all vessels passing through the South China Sea to seek permission from Beijing’s maritime authorities and identify destinations.

Of course, many countries objected to this Chinese domestic law, including the Philippines when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana voiced his strong objections during a visit last week to the United States.

The United States and its key allies — Australia, India and Japan — are responding to this latest Chinese tactic of anti-access and area denial (A2AD) in the South China Sea.

Biden is holding a summit of the four countries, known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, later this month to draw up plans, coordinate actions and cooperate on how to counter China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia’s expensive nuclear-powered submarine development could be one of the security measures to pressure China. But it could take time before Australia could deploy the offensive sub-surface weapon in the region.

In response to US support to its nuclear-powered submarine program — only a few countries in the world operate nuclear-powered submarines — Canberra has allowed the deployment of more US fighters, bombers and other aircraft to its bases in northern Australia, allowing Washington more flexibility to operate in the region.

This was in line with Kurt Campbell’s proposal to disperse US forces in many areas in the region, making US forces less vulnerable to missile attacks when these are concentrated toward large US military bases in Japan and South Korea.

In fact, the restoration in late July of the US-PH Visiting Forces Agreement also gives the US a go-signal to rotate its aircraft and personnel closer to the disputed South China Sea during constant and regular exercises and training activities.

In 2019, the US began an air force drill, called Bilateral Air Contingent Exercise-Philippines (BACE-Philippines), where fighters from South Korea flew to Basa Air Base in Pampanga, home to the Philippine Air Force’s 5th Fighter Wing, to hold training exercises.

Pilots of US F-16s and Philippines’ FA-50s trained together for a week as local military pilots learned actual aerial maneuvers, a skill that they needed to relearn after losing jet fighter capability for decades. Basa Air Base is also close to the only air gunnery training site in the region at Crow Valley in Tarlac, where pilots practiced bomb runs, strafing and delivering missiles and rockets.

The US move to disperse its tactical military forces around the region was in line with a new defense strategy unveiled in July by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when he spoke in Singapore about an integrated deterrence to counter China’s military overtures in the region.

In 2020, the US Congress approved an ambitious $27-billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative over a period of five years to acquire ships, planes, missiles and early warning systems to strengthen its defenses against hostile states in the region.

The initiative includes a $500-million budget to intensify bilateral security exercises with allies, including the Philippines and Thailand in the region.

A separate fund was earmarked for the US to put up a logistics hub across the region, including in the Philippines where it has access to five local military bases.

It has set up warehouses in Basa Air Base where the US can preposition equipment, spares and other supplies to service fighters and other aircraft. The US is planning to put up a logistics hub in Puerto Princesa in Palawan, Cebu and Cagayan de Oro City.

The US Navy has access to several ports in the country, including in Subic, the former home of the 7th Fleet, which has a natural deep and secured harbor, one of the few ports where a nuclear-powered submarine can dock.

In fact, several nuclear-powered attack submarines, which may be armed with strategic ballistic nuclear missiles, have visited Subic in the last 10 years when tensions in the disputed sea rose.

A Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine was in Subic in May 2012 at the height of the three-month standoff between the Philippine Coast Guard and Chinese coast guard ships around Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines has a Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia and it would not be long before it could host a nuclear-powered submarine in Subic.

Australia also has security arrangements with two other Southeast Asian countries under the Five Power Defense Arrangements — Singapore and Malaysia.

Southeast Asian states have not said a word about the likelihood of an Australian nuclear-powered submarine prowling about the region’s dangerous waters.

But it would surely spook one Southeast Asian state which has a history of distrust in Australia’s far reaching regional influence.

For the US and Great Britain, Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine development and deployment could be a positive move. It could certainly help counter balance China’s military presence and influence in the region.

But it could further raise tensions in the South China Sea and make some countries in the region nervous. Some Western allies could also be alienated with Australia’s move.

The US, Great Britain and Australia surprised the world with the announcement of Washington’s support to Canberra’s nuclear-powered submarine development.

It surely sent not just ripples of concern in the region but a huge wave of uncertainty.

However, China calmly received the news. It did not make a big splash in Beijing, the intended target of the news.