China hit out on Thursday at a trilateral security pact between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia that will help Canberra develop nuclear submarines, calling it “severely damaging” to regional peace and stability.
Referring to a new security partnership announced on Sept. 15, which is widely viewed as a pushback against growing Chinese military power in the region, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said three countries had “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race, and undermined international non-proliferation efforts.”
“This is extremely irresponsible … China will pay close attention to the development of the situation,” he said.
“Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception,” he said. “Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.”
Under the deal, Australia will receive nuclear propulsion systems for submarines, but won’t deploy nuclear weapons.
But China’s Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), quoted “Chinese military experts” as saying that the move could mean Australia becomes a nuclear strike target anyway.
It cited an anonymous “senior Chinese military expert” as saying that nuclear submarines are typically tasked with launching second-round nuclear strikes.
When Australia acquires such weaponry and technology, the country will potentially pose a nuclear threat to other countries, the expert said.
“It’s easy for the U.S. and the U.K. to deploy nuclear weapons and submarine-launched ballistic missiles on the Australian submarines if they believe it’s necessary, and Biden and Morrison’s promises of ‘not seeking nuclear weapons’ are meaningless,” it quoted the military expert as saying.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the allies need to consider how the strategic situation in the region may evolve.
“The future of each of our nations and indeed the world depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” he said.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said his government would meet all of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations, while U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson said the pact, known as AUKUS, wasn’t adversarial in nature.
U.S. officials told Reuters that nuclear propulsion would allow the Australian navy to operate more quietly, for longer periods, and provide deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.
Washington has shared nuclear propulsion technology only once before — with Britain in 1958.
A necessary move
Rick Fisher, senior fellow on Asian Military Affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the deal was a “necessary” move to ensure regional stability.
“This is what is necessary in order to provide assurance to Australians, who are truly facing Chinese political and military coercion every day,” Fisher told RFA.
“This is an appropriate response. It is also the kind of move that affirms the credibility of American alliance commitments,” he said.
He said nuclear-powered submarines would also give Australia the ability to counter “Chinese naval assaults into the South Pacific.”
Fisher said China could have around 4,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade.
“Helping Australia to obtain nuclear submarines is a very, very minimal first step toward equalizing the military balance in Asia and effectively deterring Chinese aggression,” Fisher said. “Much more has to be done.”
Currently, China’s most advanced strategic nuclear submarine is the Long March 18, which is armed with Julang III submarine-launched ballistic missiles with a range of around 12,000 kilometers.
Former Japanese security official and diplomat and Doshisha University professsor Nobukatsu Kanehara told the annual forum of the Global Taiwan Institute that the U.S. has to contend with China’s growing military power in the region.
“U.S. bases in Japan cover any response to the situation on the Korean peninsula, and in Taiwan,” he said. “But the problem is that, whether we are provocative or not, China is constantly growing and expanding its military capabilities.”
Chinese ambassador banned
China’s wrath over the AUKUS deal came after its ambassador was banned from the U.K. parliament after Beijing imposed sanctions on U.K. lawmakers for speaking out against its rights abuses in Xinjiang.
House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle and House of Lords speaker John McFall said on Tuesday that it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for Zheng Zeguang to address the All-Party Parliamentary China Group while members were subject to Chinese sanctions.
The Chinese embassy in London said the move was “despicable and cowardly,” and went against the interests of both countries.
China imposed sanctions on nine British politicians, lawyers, and an academic in March for spreading what it said were “lies and disinformation” over the mass incarceration of at least 1.8 million Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps, “vocational training centers,” and prisons.
The sanctions targeted former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, foreign affairs committee chairman Tom Tugendhat, and human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, a member of the House of Lords, among others, who wrote to the speakers in protest at Zheng’s planned visit.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.