Scott Morrison has said he expects the US to increase its military presence in the Indo-Pacific, as China warned Australia would end up “hurting” itself with its decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
Beijing denounced Australia’s plan to ramp up defence cooperation with the US and the UK, with a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry saying the move raised questions about Canberra’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.
The official, Zhao Lijian, said China would monitor the situation closely and called on the three countries to “abandon the obsolete Cold War zero sum mentality” or “they will only end up hurting their own interests”. Zhao said the submarine pact was “extremely irresponsible” and would undermine regional stability.
Australia’s decision to tear up a $90bn contract for French-designed diesel submarines also sparked a furious reaction from Paris, while New Zealand stuck to its anti-nuclear policy and said the new vessels would not be allowed to enter its waters.
The Australian government conceded the new plan – enabled by a new defence cooperation pact with the US and the UK, and which may not see the first submarines enter the water until about 2040 – will cost more than the old French deal.
Morrison, the prime minister, said a “relatively benign security environment” in the Indo-Pacific region was now “behind us” and this required a reassessment of Australia’s biggest defence acquisition.
He said the push for more advanced submarines, together with an intention to further increase defence spending and draw closer to the US and the UK, would allow Australia to “contribute to the stability and security of our region” and “benefit all in our region – no exceptions”.
Morrison also signalled that he expected to see a greater American military presence in the region, given that the first of the new submarines is not likely to be in the water until the late 2030s.
“The short answer is we can expect that, yes, but there are no announcements that I have today that are in relation to that,” he said.
“You can expect to see Australia working with more and more partners but particularly with the United States and the United Kingdom as a result of this arrangement to ensure we’re addressing our strategic needs here in the region.”
Morrison said he would be open to speaking with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to discuss the plans, which he said should not be seen as provocative.
“I believe and hope we would both share the same objective of a peaceful Indo-Pacific, where the sovereignty and independence of nations is understood and respected, and that enables their own citizens to flourish.”
The comments come as the foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the defence minister, Peter Dutton, prepare to meet with their US counterparts in Washington for the first annual Ausmin dialogue since the Biden administration took office.
There have been signals for months that these high-level talks – due to take place on Friday morning Australia time – will result in extra “force posture” initiatives. A push for more US marines to go on rotation in Darwin has strong support from Dutton.
But the defence cooperation pact, announced on Thursday morning in a virtual video hook-up with Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, adds to the perception Australia is drawing even closer to the US amid growing tensions with China, its top trading partner.
Under the plan, Australia will acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines in cooperation with the US and the UK, although the details are to be worked out over the coming 18 months.
It is understood the plan does not involve Australia building the nuclear reactors domestically. Instead, the reactor modules are expected to be made in either the US or the UK, sealed and then delivered to Australia, where they would be installed into the submarines assembled in Adelaide.
Australia – which maintains a moratorium on nuclear power – has emphasised that it is not seeking nuclear armed submarines, and that it remains committed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The secretary of the defence department, Greg Moriarty, said: “The management of waste, the disposal of the submarine at the end of its life, all of those are issues where we will be engaging with our US and UK partners.”
It is understood talks leading to the deal began about 18 months ago, when officials were asked whether it might be feasible to take a different approach to the submarines. Morrison is not believed to have taken it up at a political level with the US when Donald Trump was still president.
The highly secretive conversations picked up pace in March or April, first between Australia and the UK. Johnson joined Morrison and Biden for a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall in June, where the leaders discussed the defence cooperation plans in broad terms.
The Australian government had been growing increasingly concerned with the progress on the French-designed submarines, including whether the diesel-powered vessels had the capability to address growing strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
Senior French ministers accused Australia of “going against the letter and the spirit” of the deal, and said they regretted “the American choice to push aside a European ally and partner like France from a structural partnership with Australia at a time we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region”.
France’s former ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, tweeted: “France has just been reminded this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia. C’est la vie.”
The first of the 12 French-designed submarines had been expected to be operational in the mid 2030s. The Australian government will now spend billions more on extending the life of the existing Collins class submarines.
Morrison said the government had already “invested $2.4bn” in the Attack-class submarine program to date, but played down suggestions that was wasted money. He said it had helped develop local skills that would assist with naval shipbuilding. “All of that investment, I believe, has further built our capability.”
Labor said the true costs of the abandoned project were much higher – at least $4bn – based on funding budgeted, spent and committed for phases 1A and 1B of the deal. The opposition called on the government to be “transparent about how much money has been burnt in the process”.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said he accepted nuclear-powered submarines were now the best option for Australia’s capability, but noted an election was due by next year and urged the government to involve the opposition in the process.
But former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, said the deal would cause “a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty”, as it would deepen dependency on the US. He said that would rob decision makers in Canberra “of any freedom or choice in any engagement Australia may deem appropriate”.
The leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, said the government’s “dangerous nuclear sub folly” would increase the risk of conflict in the region.