China says AUKUS on ‘dangerous path’ with nuclear subs deal

Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the arrangement, given the acronym AUKUS arises from the ‘typical Cold War mentality which will only motivate an arms race’

Chinese Foreign Ministry
In this image made from video, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin gestures as he speaks during a media briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023.Liu Zheng (AP)

The United States, Australia and the United Kingdom are traveling “further down the wrong and dangerous path for their own geopolitical self-interest,” China’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, responding to an agreement under which Australia will purchase nuclear-powered attack submarines from the U.S. to modernize its fleet.

Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the arrangement, given the acronym AUKUS — for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States — arises from the “typical Cold War mentality which will only motivate an arms race, damage the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, and harm regional stability and peace.”

“The latest joint statement issued by the U.S., U.K., and Australia shows that the three countries have gone further down the wrong and dangerous path for their own geopolitical self-interest, completely ignoring the concerns of the international community,” Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.

U.S. President Joe Biden flew to San Diego to appear with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as they hailed an 18-month-old nuclear partnership that enables Australia to access nuclear-powered submarines, which are stealthier and more capable than conventionally powered vessels, as a counterweight to China’s military buildup.

Biden emphasized the ships would not carry nuclear weapons of any kind. Albanese has said he doesn’t think the deal will sour its relationship with China, which he noted had improved in recent months.

Wang repeated China’s claims that AUKUS poses a “serious risk of nuclear proliferation and violating the object and purpose of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

“The three countries claim that they will abide by the highest nuclear non-proliferation standards, which is pure deception,” Wang said, accusing the three of “coercing” the International Atomic Energy Agency into giving its endorsement.

Also Tuesday, Australia’s defense minister said AUKUS was necessary to counter the biggest conventional military buildup in the region since World War II. Australian officials said the deal will cost up to $245 billion over the next three decades and create 20,000 jobs.

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said it had made a huge diplomatic effort for months ahead of Monday’s announcement of the deal, including making more than 60 calls to regional and world leaders. Australia had even offered to keep China in the loop, he said.

“We offered a briefing. I have not participated in a briefing with China,” Marles said.

Speaking in a video call with reporters late Monday, U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel J. Kritenbrink said the degree of transparency involved was one of the key features of the arrangement.

“AUKUS partners have made our intentions clear, including our commitment to regional peace and stability,” Kritenbrink said. “We have committed ourselves to the highest safety and nonproliferation standards, and we look forward to continuing to engage with our friends, partners, and allies in the region,” he said.

AUKUS is one of several U.S.-led security arrangements that have drawn fire from Beijing, which routinely rails against regional blocs from which it is excluded as vestiges of the Cold War.

Along with Russia, China has denounced the Quad — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — whose foreign ministers earlier this month made clear they aim to be an alternative to China. The ministers said they viewed with concern “challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China Seas,” in a reference to China’s aggressive moves to assert its territorial claims in a quest to replace the U.S. as the region’s preeminent military force.

China has also been unsettled by an agreement between Washington and the Philippines, giving U.S. forces greater access to Filipino bases along what is called the “first island chain” that is key to Chinese control of the region.

U.S. military and political support for Taiwan have also drawn more threatening responses from Beijing in recent years.

A 2022 visit to the island by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prompted Beijing to fire missiles over the island, send ships and warplanes into the area and hold military exercises in a simulated blockade of the island. Amid tensions over the U.S. shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon in February, China refused to accept a phone call from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the matter.

Recent days have seen officials from President Xi Jinping down issue dire pronouncements on U.S. China relations and Chinese security in general.

Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned Washington last week of possible “conflict and confrontation” if the U.S. doesn’t change course to mend relations strained over Taiwan, human rights, Hong Kong, security, technology and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A day earlier, Xi told delegates of China’s rubber-stamp legislature that “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation’s development.”

On the legislature’s closing day Monday, Xi said it was necessary to modernize the armed forces and “build the people’s army into a great wall of steel” that protects China’s interests and national security. Xi also reiterated China’s determination to bring Taiwan under its control by peaceful or military means amid rising concern abroad over a possible attack on the island Beijing claims as its own territory.

China must “resolutely oppose interference by external forces and Taiwan independence separatist activities, and unswervingly promote the process of reunification of the motherland,” Xi said.

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