China says Aukus submarine deal poses ‘serious nuclear proliferation risks’

The US, UK and Australia have all staunchly defended the pact

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Tuesday 14 March 2023 19:21 GMT
China condemns Aukus treaty as ‘irresponsible act’ that ‘intensifies arms race’

China has accused the US, Britain and Australia of treading a “path of error and danger” in the wake of the Aukus partners’ announcement of a nuclear-powered submarine deal.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the pact arose from a “typical Cold War mentality”, accusing the UK and US of violating the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in transferring weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear power.

At a daily briefing in Beijing, spokesperson Wenbin Wang said: “The latest joint statement issued by the US, UK 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.”

Under the agreement intended to counter China’s increasing military assertiveness in the Pacific, Australia will get its first nuclear-powered submarines. It will also provide the Royal Navy with replacements for its seven Astute submarines, potentially doubling the size of the fleet of its attack boats.

The pact will “only motivate an arms race, damage the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and harm regional stability and peace,” Mr Wang said.

The US president, Joe Biden, rejected the accusation, saying the submarines would be “nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed”. While Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said: “Australia’s motivation is peace.”

Shortly after Monday’s announcement, China’s permanent mission to the UN said in a tweet that the plan “constitutes serious nuclear proliferation risks, undermines international non-proliferation system, fuels arms races and hurts peace and stability”.

To date, no party to the nuclear NPT other than the five countries the treaty recognises as weapons states – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – has nuclear-powered submarines. The Kremlin also questioned the new deal, saying that the world needs “special transparency and we need to answer the questions that arise” over nuclear proliferation.

The US 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 Aukus arrangement. “Aukus partners have made our intentions clear, including our commitment to regional peace and stability,” Mr 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.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says the NPT allows “marine nuclear propulsion” provided necessary arrangements are made with the IAEA. The three partners “reaffirmed their previously stated commitment that maintaining the integrity of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and agency safeguards remains a core objective in relation to Aukus,” the IAEA said in a statement. Mr Wang accused the US, UK and Australia of “coercing” the IAEA into giving its endorsement.

Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, said the pact was a necessary move to counter the biggest conventional military buildup in the region since the Second World War. Richard Marles on Tuesday said a huge diplomatic effort was made for months ahead of Monday’s announcement of the deal, including making more than 60 calls to regional and world leaders. Canberra also offered a briefing to China, he said.

Downing Street also defended the pact after the criticism from Beijing. A No 10 spokesman said: “This is not about any one individual country, it’s about investing in the capabilities we need to ensure UK security. We’ve set out the reason for the partnership and the aim of the partnership to deter aggression and enhance global security.”

The multi-stage project would culminate with British and Australian production and operation of a new submarine class – SSN-Aukus – a “trilaterally developed” vessel based on Britain’s next-generation design that would be built in Britain and Australia and include “cutting-edge” US technologies. Britain would take delivery of its first SSN-Aukus submarine in the late 2030s, and Australia would receive its first in the early 2040s.

“The Aukus agreement we confirm here in San Diego represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in our history, strengthening Australia’s national security and stability in our region,” Mr Albanese said at the ceremony.

In launching the partnership, Australia soured ties with France by abruptly cancelling a deal to buy their conventional submarines.

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