China fumes as US allies unite on nuclear subs

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman says new partnership will stoke 'arms race'

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian speaks during a daily media briefing in Beijing, China, March 19, 2021. EPA
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China slammed a move by the US and UK to help Australia build nuclear submarines, saying the new partnership will stoke an “arms race” as tensions heat up in Asia-Pacific waters.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night to announce a new security partnership that will allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

While it could take more than a decade for Australia to build one, the agreement shows the US joining with key English-speaking allies to form a more cohesive defence arrangement to offset China’s rising military prowess.

The partnership “greatly undermines regional peace and stability, aggravates the arms race and hurts the international non-proliferation efforts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Thursday. He also questioned Australia’s commitment to forgo developing or acquiring nuclear weapons, and said the US and UK were “using nuclear exports as geopolitical gaming tool and applying double standards.”

The move will elevate Australia into an elite club of only a handful of nations that operate nuclear-powered submarines, which can travel long distances without the need to refuel. They would complement plans by the US, Britain and other nations to deter Chinese aggression against Japan and Taiwan to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

“This is the biggest surprise in Australian geopolitics in decades,” said John Blaxland, a former intelligence officer who is now a professor in international security at the Australian National University. “The subs deal shows the US now sees the utility of bolstering Australia’s capabilities to complement its own in a way it never did before.”

“This is the biggest surprise in Australian geopolitics in decades
John Blaxland, former intelligence officer

Relations between the US and China have remained tense, with a phone call last week between Mr Biden and China President Xi Jinping failing to produce a breakthrough on disputes regarding climate change, tariffs and exports of high-tech goods. Beijing has also sparred with the UK over Hong Kong and Australia over a probe into the origins of the coronavirus.

“The pact itself also speaks to a significant change to the geostrategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific,” Blaxland added. He said it was “linked to the post-Brexit re-engagement of the UK in the region, the more belligerent stance of Mr Xi’s China, and a greater concern about the precariousness of American military power and its ability to deter or win a potential conflict in the Pacific.”

Rifts among allies

While the deal strengthens bonds between Australia, the US and the UK, it caused a rift with two other allies: France and New Zealand, which has a longstanding policy to exclude nuclear-powered vessels from its waters. The deal automatically scuppers a 2016 agreement with French military shipbuilder Naval Group to build up to 12 submarines, a project with a price tag of an estimated A$90 billion ($66 billion).

France issued a terse statement, saying the decision was “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed” between the nations. France’s Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly also took aim at Biden: “The American choice to exclude a European ally” from the three-way deal “shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”

Hours later in Canberra, Mr Morrison told reporters that he understood France’s disappointment and hoped President Emmanuel Macron could “move past what is obviously a very difficult and disappointing decision.” Still, he said that the situation had changed drastically since 2016.

“These are game-changing differences in the technology and the opportunity that Australia has,” Mr Morrison said. “But there have also been game-changing developments in the strategic circumstances of our region, which continue to accelerate at a pace even not envisaged as little as five years ago.”

After the US’s humbling retreat in Afghanistan, the new pact will help Mr Biden’s efforts to show American resolve over China in the Asia-Pacific region. Next week the president will host the first face-to-face meeting in the White House of leaders from Quad nations, which includes Australia as well as Japan and India.

Mr Morrison has received praise for the deal at home, particularly as he pushes back against Chinese trade reprisals, including crippling tariffs on Australian barley and wine and restrictions on coal shipments. The Australian leader has helped turn the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network -- including the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand -- into a group that regularly criticises China’s human-rights record.

Mr Morrison said he had further calls with allies around the region after announcing the partnership, which he would extend to China despite growing tensions between the two countries that have put ministerial-level ties in a deep freeze. “There’s an open invitation for President Xi to discuss other matters,” he said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was informed “at an early stage” about the deal. Its inspectors will now work with the UK and US to ensure the transfer of atomic material to Australia conforms with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Vienna-based agency said in a statement.

While it could be a long time before Australia builds a nuclear-powered submarine, the US could potentially transfer one into Australian waters for training before then, according to Paul Maddison, former commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.

“The capability these subs offer is exactly what Australia needs in terms of endurance, range and stealth,” said Mr Maddison, who is now director of the University of New South Wales Defence Research Institute. “But it’s no small thing to introduce nuclear propulsion into the order of battle. It will require a skillset that simply doesn’t exist in Australia.”

Updated: September 16, 2021, 1:51 PM