WASHINGTON - China has reacted sharply to the new, enhanced trilateral security partnership AUKUS announced by the US, UK and Australia, accusing the three powers of an “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality.”
The most significant outcome of AUKUS, announced in Washington on Thursday morning Singapore time, is that Australia will build a fleet of nuclear powered submarines with US and UK technology – vastly expanding its reach and capabilities.
The announcement drew a swift reaction from Beijing, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian saying AUKUS “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified an arms race in the region, and undermined international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.”
“Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow geopolitical concepts, respect the will of the people in the region, and do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability, otherwise they will only shoot themselves in the foot,” he added.
The Australian Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, however, despite the backdrop of sharply deteriorating ties with Beijing with high-level talks between both sides frozen, held out an olive branch, saying there was an “open invitation” for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Prime Minister Lee noted the long-standing bilateral and multilateral relations that Singapore shared with Australia, the UK and the US, and hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture,” Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Mr Morrison on Thursday was also reported to have called the leaders of Indonesia, India and Japan.
Elaborating on AUKUS at a news conference in Canberra, Mr Morrison said: “We will be enhancing our long-range strike capability, including Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fielded on the Royal Australian Navy Hobart-class destroyers and joint air-to-surface stand-off missiles extended range for our Royal Australian Air Force capabilities.”
The trilateral pact means Australia will scrap a A$90 billion (S$88.1 billion) deal with France on conventional submarines in favour of the nuclear powered ones, a move which has caused much consternation in Paris. “It’s really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Info radio.
While US officials were careful to deny that AUKUS is aimed at China, analysts say there is no escaping the message.
AUKUS is seen as a strong signal that deterrence in Asia and the Indo-Pacific is being beefed up against the perceived threat of a rising China.
At the announcement at the White House early Thursday, Mr Morrison speaking via video link, said: “The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures.”
“We must now take our partnership to a new level… where our technology, our scientists, our industry, our defence forces are all working together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all.”
“The first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia. Over the next 18 months, we will work together to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve this,” he added.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also via video link, said AUKUS would bind the three powers more closely together, reflecting “the enduring strength of our shared values of freedom and democracy.”
President Joe Biden said: “We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve. Because 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.”
“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength - our alliances - and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow,” he added.
Beijing will undoubtedly view AUKUS as a US-led containment strategy, said Bonnie Glaser, Washington-based director of the Asia Programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“But it is really a collective response against China’s growing ambitions and increasingly assertive posture and behavior,” she told The Straits Times.
Earlier, while briefing journalists in Washington, senior US administration officials described AUKUS as “a larger effort to sustain the fabric of engagement and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.”
The United States has been the “ultimate guarantor” of the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, they said.
“This allows Australia to play at a much higher level and to augment American capabilities that will be similar. And this is about maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”
“You will see much deeper interoperability among our navies and our nuclear infrastructure people” one official said. “This is a fundamental decision… that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations.”