China and the World

Ruckus over AUKUS

Australian submarine purchases sparks fury in France and China


Cancellation of a French submarine contract produced global waves

It’s not often that China and France claim diplomatic outrage over the same event. Yet the announcement of a new defence pact between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom has them both hopping mad.

France is annoyed because the deal – known as the AUKUS pact – means that the US and Britain will help Australia to build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in only the second instance in which the Americans have shared this technology.

The arrangements will also see Canberra cancel a multi-billion-dollar contract for 12 diesel-powered subs with France’s Naval Group.

Making matters more contentious is that the French – America’s oldest ally – say they were deliberately kept in the dark while the new pact was being negotiated.

France’s foreign minster described the September 15 announcement as a “stab in the back”, adding that it was the mildest expression he could manage for how France’s three allies had gone about creating their new partnership.

Of course, Canberra’s decision to join AUKUS is also a sign of how badly a series of political and trade rows have damaged the Sino-Australian relationship. Gone are the days when the Australian government tried to portray a little distance between itself and Washington as a way of maintaining full and fruitful access to the Chinese market. “Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region the Indo-Pacific… to help deliver the security and stability our region needs we must now take our partnership to a new level,” Australian Prime Minster Scott Morrison explained of the new accord in an announcement ceremony.

The alliance envisages greater diplomatic and technological collaboration between the three partners especially in areas such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. But Beijing has denounced the new pact as “irresponsible” and “narrow-minded”, seeing it as a clear attempt to counter Chinese ambitions in the region by upgrading Australia’s military capabilities.

“The relevant countries should abandon their outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and their narrow-minded geopolitical perception,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian urged.

The Chinese also claim that the pact undermines non-proliferation agreements because it will entail the sharing of nuclear technology – making Australia one of only seven nations to operate nuclear-powered vessels (note: the subs will not – at this stage – be equipped with nuclear missiles).

Not that this mattered to the state news agency Xinhua, which railed against an “irresponsible and dangerous move fuelled by a mentality of confrontation and exclusion. Washington is once again playing double standards on nuclear exports and utilisation, and using the issue as a tool for a dangerous geopolitical game”.

The AUKUS deal is yet another signal that Chinese hopes of a more conciliatory relationship with a Joe Biden White House were misguided. If anything, Biden’s administration is doubling down on its commitments to check China’s growing influence on the geopolitical stage. “This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow,” Biden proclaimed as he announced the submarine deal.

For Beijing, there are a few positives in the row – especially that the Americans have damaged their relationship with France, just as they botched the final withdrawal from Afghanistan recently, to the fury of a number of their long-term allies.

“How can Europe and its allies cooperate in the Indo-Pacific when Europe has been betrayed,” the Xinmin Evening News asked.

The Global Times was quick to see a weakness too, describing AUKUS as a “large stone” that Washington had dropped on its own feet, as seen in its alienation of the French (who withdrew their ambassador from Washington in protest). “This new trilateral alliance of countries with Anglo-Saxon ancestry, makes all other US allies feel estranged from Washington,” it surmised.

France isn’t a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance of the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, or part of the Indo-Pacific-focused Quad of the US, India, Japan and Australia, it also noted.

But the newspaper held back its deepest contempt for Canberra, in another of a lengthening series of taunts and tirades against the Australians. “By pursuing a one-sided pivot toward the US, Australia has turned itself into an adversary of China,” it warned darkly. “Once the Australian army fights the People’s Liberation Army in the Taiwan Straits or the South China Sea, military targets in Australia will inevitably become targets of Chinese missiles. Since Australia has become an anti-China spearhead, the country should prepare for the worst.”



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