China has told the US, the UK and Australia to abandon their “cold war” mentality or risk harming their own interests after the three countries unveiled a new defence cooperation pact.
The trilateral security partnership, named Aukus, was announced on Thursday by the three nations’ leaders via video link, and will include an 18-month plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
It drew strong political reaction domestically in Australia and the UK, and from France, whose existing $90bn (£65bn) submarine contract with Australia has now come to an abrupt end.
While none of the three western leaders involved mentioned China, the arrangement is widely understood to be in response to Beijing’s expansionism and aggression in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan. The US president, Joe Biden, spoke of the need to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and to address the region’s “current strategic environment”.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said the US and UK’s decision to export highly sensitive nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia was a case of “extremely irresponsible” double standards.
“The international community, including neighbouring countries, have risen to question [Australia’s] commitment to nuclear non-proliferation,” Zhao said, according to a translation aired by ABC News. “China will closely monitor the situation.”
Zhao said the three countries “should abandon the obsolete cold war zero sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts and respect regional people’s aspiration and do more that is conducive to regional peace and stability and development – otherwise they will only end up hurting their own interests”.
Earlier, when asked for his response to the Aukus announcement, the Chinese embassy spokesperson in the US, Liu Pengyu, said countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties. In particular, they should shake off their cold war mentality and ideological prejudice”.
A bellicose English-language editorial in the hawkish Global Times said Australia had now “turned itself into an adversary of China”.
The state-backed publication, which often goes further than official pronouncements, warned that Australia could be targeted as a warning to others if it acted “with bravado” in allegiance to the US, or by being “militarily assertive”.
“Thus, Australian troops are also most likely to be the first batch of western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea,” it said.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said the agreement was “undoubtedly” about countering China, amid the “lowest levels of dialogue” between Beijing and the three nations. Shi said the US, the UK and Australia had been active in addressing what they saw as China’s expansion of strategic activities, “so this is real strategic cooperation between like-minded countries”.
Shi said the mutual support between the US and allies for military buildup would definitely prompt Beijing to respond with “an uncompromising attitude and countermeasures”, particularly if the future Australian submarines entered the South China Sea for joint military exercises.
He said: “China will definitely counter it, but the question is what kind of counter it would be.”
China has been accelerating its military development and has become far more aggressive in the region, including near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone. There are growing fears that confrontation in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait could escalate into conflict.
On Thursday, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, extended an “open invitation” for talks with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, saying he was ready to discuss issues. Communications between the two governments have essentially frozen, amid worsening bilateral and trade relations.
France’s foreign minister criticised the partnership, which heralds the end of a $90bn deal that Australia made with the French company Naval Group in 2016 to replace its ageing Collins class submarine fleet. France accused Australia of “going against the letter and the spirit” of the deal.
“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 … shows a lack of coherence that France can only acknowledge and regret,” said the foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and the defence minister, Florence Parly, in a joint statement.
On Twitter, France’s former ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, went further, saying: “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.”
Araud also appeared to question why Australia did not seek nuclear submarines from France. “A nuc powered submarine would have been much easier to France to offer since all its submarines are nuc powered,” he tweeted. “The difficulty was precisely to convert nuc powered into conventional powered ships.”
Morrison defended the now defunct French deal, saying the $2.4bn spent by Australia had not been a waste of money.
“All of that investment, I believe, has further built our capability and that is consistent with the decision that was taken back in 2016 for all the right reasons to protect Australia’s national security interests and has served that purpose,” he said.
The fleet will be built in Adelaide and will make Australia the seventh nation in the world to have submarines powered by nuclear reactors. Morrison noted they would not carry nuclear weapons. Australia is a signatory to non-proliferation treaties.
New Zealand, which has prohibited nuclear-powered vessels from its sovereign waters for more than three decades, confirmed there would be no exception for Australia and the submarines would be banned from entry. Analysts noted that New Zealand’s absence from the deal was “conspicuous”, but the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said it “in no way changes” existing intelligence arrangements with the three nations or the fifth member of the Five Eyes collective, Canada.
Amid the rise in tensions, China has become increasingly isolated on the world stage. Biden and Xi spoke on the phone last week for the first time since a post-inauguration call, and recent meetings with foreign officials have ended in an impasse or in anger.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), the winner of the 2017 Nobel peace prize, said on Thursday Aukus was a move in “the wrong direction at the wrong time”.
While Australia said the submarines would never be nuclear-armed, Ican said a military nuclear reactor built in Adelaide was a “foot in the door” towards weapons development.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK Commons foreign affairs committee, said the Aukus arrangement was clearly in response to China. “After years of bullying and trade hostility, and watching regional neighbours like the Philippines see encroachment into their waters, Australia didn’t have a choice, and nor did the US or UK,” he said in a series of tweets.
“Tonight, Beijing will have realised the pressure on Australia has triggered a response. This is a powerful answer to those who thought the US was pulling back and the propaganda claiming Washington wasn’t a reliable ally.”
The former Australia prime minister Paul Keating was excoriating of the arrangement, saying it tied Australia to any US engagement against China. “This arrangement would witness a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as materiel dependency on the US would rob Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement it may deem appropriate,” he said.
The government of Japan, which is aiming to bolster its defence capabilities against a potential invasion of its southern islands by an increasingly assertive China, has yet to comment on the new alliance.
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper said the US, UK and Australia were “clearly coming together with opposition to China in mind”, adding that the Biden administration had already strengthened cooperation with allies in the Indo-Pacific through the Quad pact involving Australian, Japan, India and the US.
The left-leaning Asahi also pointed to the recent mission of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the region, where it held its first joint drill with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces last month, as evidence that the UK is “strengthening its involvement in the Indo-Pacific region”.
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu