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Indo-Pacific

China slams U.S.-led plan to give nuclear submarines to Australia

Beijing calls on Washington, London, Canberra to drop 'zero-sum game mentality'

China says the U.S. and U.K. decision to export nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia proves that they are using nuclear exports for geopolitical gains.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- China slammed the new Indo-Pacific security alliance unveiled by the U.S., the U.K. and Australia on Wednesday, especially the plan to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular briefing on Thursday that the three English-speaking nations should "abandon their Cold War and zero-sum game mentality." Otherwise, he said, they would "lift a rock that drops on their own feet," according to the Global Times, a Communist Party-backed newspaper.

Under the pact, dubbed AUKUS, Australia will be only the second country after Britain, in the 1950s, to gain access to American technology to build nuclear-powered submarines. A joint statement said the three nations would seek to deliver at least eight vessels. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talked up the submarines' capabilities, while strenuously denying any intention to arm them with atomic weapons.

China's Zhao said the decision by Washington and London to export nuclear-powered submarine technology to Canberra proves that they are using nuclear exports for geopolitical gains. He added that should Australia as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons import the technology, then its neighbors and the international community would question its sincerity in meeting the terms of that treaty.

The alliance is another move by U.S. President Joe Biden to turn the security screws on China, which is acting increasingly aggressively toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea. The announcement -- slammed by France as it now misses out on a submarine deal with Australia -- came a day before the European Union was due to publish its Indo-Pacific strategy, and ahead of a meeting in Washington of the so-called Quad security dialogue.

Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, said the launch of AUKUS seems to serve Canberra's and Washington's purposes by making a big decision that appears to be a game changer.

"They wanted to orchestrate some kind of announceable deliverable that showed the U.S. living up to its goal of countering China and showing the flag in Asia," Jackson told Nikkei Asia.

He added that China will respond by simply keeping the economic thumbscrews on Australia. "There will surely be some aggressive wolf-warrior comments from China soon enough, but the meaningful reaction is the one that's already ongoing."

A senior Chinese military expert told the Global Times that when Australia acquires such technology, it will potentially pose a nuclear threat to other countries.

"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's and Morrison's promises of 'not seeking nuclear weapons' are meaningless," said the expert who requested anonymity.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison, center, appears on stage with video links to Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and U.S. President Joe Biden at a press conference in Canberra on Thursday.   © Reuters

The announcement has already created rifts between U.S. allies in Europe, and raised tensions between Australia and New Zealand.

France acted furiously to the announcement as its $90 billion deal to supply 12 conventionally powered submarines has now been scrapped.

"This unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision is very similar to what Mr. Trump did," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a radio show, referring to former U.S. President Donald Trump. "This kind of behavior should not happen between allies... we were talking about all this with the United States a short time ago, and here is this rupture. It is quite unbearable," he added.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that despite the announcement triggering the cancellation of the French submarine deal with Australia, his nation's relationship with Paris was "rock solid."

Jackson said the idea that the U.S., the U.K. and Australia -- a subgroup of Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement that also includes Canada and New Zealand -- would convene on a deeper level was being planned as early as 2019.

"This comes at France's expense because the decision for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of this new tripartite arrangement means it won't be acquiring French submarines," he said. "Five-Eyes is pretty much the most trusted technocratic arrangement that any of these countries has, and France is not part of Five-Eyes, so France was never going to be part of this specific decision."

Jackson added that Japan and India -- members of the Quad along with the U.S. and Australia -- were not included simply because the intention was always to make AUKUS a sub-Five Eyes grouping.

The announcement is also straining ties across the Tasman Sea. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Australian nuclear-powered subs would not be allowed in its waters under a 1984 nuclear-free zone law.

Japan was basically supportive of the AUKUS alliance. "We would like to work closely with allies and friendly nations toward the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters in Tokyo.

Taiwan also appeared to welcome the move.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Joanne Ou said at a news briefing that Taiwan shares common interests with the U.S., Australia and the U.K. for the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.

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