China accused Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of threatening peace in the Pacific region after leaders of the so-called AUKUS military partnership unveiled further information about their plan to expand the reach of Washington’s nuclear-powered submarine technology.
“The latest joint statement from the U.S., U.K., and Australia demonstrates that the three countries, for the sake of their own geopolitical interests, completely disregard the concerns of the international community and are walking further and further down the path of error and danger,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a Tuesday press conference.
Eighteen months after AUKUS was established, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and U.S. President Joe Biden met Monday in California, where they announced details about the years-long collaboration.
Following roughly a decade of training from the U.S. and U.K. navies, Australia is set to purchase three Virginia-class submarines propelled by enriched uranium by the “early 2030s,” pending U.S. congressional approval. After the initial deal, Canberra will have the option to obtain two additional vessels, which are valued at $3 billion each and capable of launching cruise missiles.
“The sale announced on Monday is part of a long-term, multi-stage plan destined to make Australia a full partner in fielding top-secret U.S. nuclear technology previously shared only with the U.K.,” Al Jazeera reported. “Meanwhile, Australia and Britain will start building a new submarine model with U.S. technology and support, with the U.K. expected to deliver its first home-built nuclear submarine by the late 2030s. Australia is set to deliver those new vessels to its navy by the early 2040s.”
As the news outlet noted, the trilateral agreement also “includes a commitment to cooperate on building artificial intelligence capabilities, hypersonic weapons, and other advanced technologies.”
Although China received only a passing reference on Monday, AUKUS is widely seen as a U.S.-led effort to contain Beijing’s growing economic, military, and diplomatic power. Chinese officials, global peace activists, and the U.K. Labour Party have denounced the military pact as an escalation of a “new Cold War” against China.
Speaking Monday from the Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, Biden described the moment as “an inflection point in history, where the hard work of enhancing deterrence and promoting stability is going to affect the prospect of peace for decades to come.”
Albanese, meanwhile, thanked the U.S. for sharing its nuclear propulsion technology for “the first time in 65 years and only the second time in history.”
For his part, Sunak argued that “Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, and [the] destabilizing behavior of Iran and North Korea” make it “more important than ever that we strengthen the resilience of our own countries,” adding: “Ultimately, the defense of our values depends, as it always has, on the quality of our relationships with others.”
Wang’s statement came after the Chinese mission to the United Nations condemned the deal on Twitter:
The nuclear submarine cooperation plan released today by AUKUS is a blatant act that constitutes serious nuclear proliferation risks, undermines [the] international non-proliferation system, fuels arms races, and hurts peace and stability in the region.
The irony of AUKUS is that two nuclear weapons states who claim to uphold the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard are transferring tons of weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state, clearly violating the object and purpose of the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty].
Such a textbook case of double standard will damage the authority and effectiveness of the international non-proliferation system. We urge the trio to honor their obligations as members of the NPT and respond to the [concerns] of the international community.
According to The Guardian: “Biden rejected the accusation, saying the submarines would be ‘nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed.’ Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, said the Chinese criticism was ‘not grounded in fact.'”
Australia has long maintained that it is not looking to acquire nuclear weapons or build its civil nuclear capacity and intends to abide by the NPT.
But critics of AUKUS worry that it “could still indirectly spur the proliferation of weapons” by setting “a dangerous precedent for countries to exploit a loophole in the NPT,” The Guardian explained when the alliance was created in September 2021. The NPT allows countries without atomic bombs, such as Australia, “to build nuclear-powered submarines, and to remove the fissile material they need for the submarine reactors from the stockpile monitored by the global watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, opening up the possibility it could be diverted to making weapons.”
The joint statement issued by Biden, Sunak, and Albanese on Monday says that the U.S., U.K., and Australia “continue to consult with the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop a non-proliferation approach that sets the strongest precedent for the acquisition of a nuclear-powered submarine capability.”
Wang called this claim “pure deception” and accused the three countries of “coercing” the IAEA into providing its endorsement.
Mao Ning, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, urged the trio “to abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum games, honor international obligations in good faith, and do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability.”
Biden said Monday that he expects to speak soon with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But Wang declared Tuesday that Beijing does not want to “communicate for the sake of communicating.” Instead, he said, “the U.S. side should come forward sincerely, with practical actions to promote China-U.S. relations.”
Relations between Washington and Beijing have deteriorated in recent months, hitting their lowest point in decades.
Last August, visits by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress to Taiwan (the Republic of China, or ROC) chilled numerous channels of communication. Beijing — along with most of the international community, including Washington since the 1970s — considers the breakaway province to be part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
In a departure from more than four decades of “One China” policy — in which the U.S. recognizes the PRC as the sole legal government of China and maintains informal relations with the ROC while adopting a position of “strategic ambiguity” to obscure how far it would go to protect Taiwan — Biden has vowed on multiple occasions to use military force in response to a Chinese invasion of the island.
In addition to the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, the U.S. announced last October that it is preparing to deploy up to six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to northern Australia, where they would be close enough to strike China.
After Washington shot down a Chinese ballon that entered U.S. air space last month, Beijing refused to take a call from U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his long-awaited trip to China.
As The Associated Press reported Tuesday, Xi told Chinese lawmakers last week that “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation’s development.”
“On the Legislature’s closing day Monday, Xi said it was necessary to modernize the armed forces and ‘build the people’s army into a great wall of steel’ that protects China’s interests and national security,” AP reported. “Xi also reiterated China’s determination to bring Taiwan under its control by peaceful or military means amid rising concern abroad over a possible attack on the island Beijing claims as its own territory.”
China must “resolutely oppose interference by external forces and Taiwan independence separatist activities, and unswervingly promote the process of reunification of the motherland,” said Xi.
Amid growing concerns that Washington’s increasingly hostile approach to Beijing could spiral into a full-blown military conflict, progressive advocacy groups have argued that “nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China.”