According to the Global Times, a newspaper viewed as a mouthpiece of the Communist Party in Beijing, Chinese military experts fear the vessels could be upgraded with a nuclear arsenal, despite assurances that they will only carry conventional weapons.
Chinese military experts have supposedly warned of a potential strike on Australia, this was because, claims the Global Times, it would be relatively easy for Washington and London to equip the vessels with ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.
In the report an unnamed senior military expert says that only nuclear armed states have nuclear-powered submarines and their role is to launch nuclear missiles in the event of war.
The sources said assurances by Joe Biden and the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison on nuclear weaponry were “meaningless”.
It would be “easy for the US and UK to deploy nuclear weapons and submarine-launched ballistic missiles on the Australian submarines”, says the unnamed military figure.
In another story the state-backed publication, which often uses colourful invectives and is used for sabre rattling against perceived enemies, warned that Australia could be targetted as a warning to others if it acted “with bravado” in allegiance to the US, or by being “militarily assertive”.
“Thus, Australian troops are also most likely to be the first batch of western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea,” it said.
In its official reaction, the Chinese government stated the proposal to introduce the nuclear-powered submarines was a dangerous development. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said it “seriously damages regional peace and stability, intensifies the arms race and undermines the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”.
In reality, there is no likelihood of the Chinese government launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Australia because it is acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. India, a country which has been recently in armed clashes with China, has long operated nuclear-powered submarines in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The agreement between Australia, UK and US has, however drawn criticism from allies as well as China. The deal, put together swiftly and largely in secrecy, means that France will lose a $90bn (£65bn) contract to build diesel-powered submarines for Australia.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, decried a “stab in the back” from Australia, saying “we had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed”.
Mr Le Drian said what has happened showed that Mr Biden was behaving no better than Donald Trump: “The brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do. I am angry and I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
Gerard Araud, the former French ambassador to Washington, tweeted : “France has just been reminded this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia.”
Other officials said relations with America were the worst since 2003, the times when the French were called “cheese eating surrender monkeys” for refusing to join the US and UK in the disastrous Iraq invasion.
Joseph Borrell, foreign affairs and security policy chief for the European Union, which had just unveiled its own Indo-Pacific strategy, concluded that “we must survive on our own as others do. I understand the extent to which the French government must be disappointed”.
Theresa May asked how the Aukus pact will cause the UK to respond should China attempt to invade Taiwan. “Can I ask him what are the implications of this pact for the stance that would be taken by the United Kingdom in its response should China attempt to invade Taiwan?”
Boris Johnson replied: “The United Kingdom remains determined to defend international law and that is the strong advice we would give to our friends across the world, and the strong advice that we would give to the government in Beijing.”
The reactions were partly due to shock at what had unfolded. Just a fortnight ago the Australian defence and foreign ministers had reconfirmed the French agreement. Emmanuel Macron had looked forward to future cooperation when hosting Mr Morrison in June.
Yet now we know, firstly privately from British officials, then publicly from defence secretary Ben Wallace and national security advisor Sir Stephen Lovegrove, that the Australians had first approached over switching to the agreement with the UK and US back in March.
“This has been a project in gestation for some months – right through the Afghanistan drawdown – and is a powerful illustration of how we are building new long-term partnerships rooted in Britain’s values, its scientific and engineering excellence, and in our alliances” said Sir Stephen.
What happened in Afghanistan was already a sign for European states that America’s position had not changed that much since the departure of Mr Trump. President Biden had carried on with his predecessor’s policy of hastily pulling out forces, with all the consequences that ensued. There was little consultation with Nato partners, who had no choice but to withdraw their troops as well.
The Biden administration was turning its focus on the Indo-Pacific. It is not the first to seek to do so. Barack Obama had also attempted the move to the east but was held back to the Middle East by the rise of Isis.
The Aukus agreement formalises the attempt to check Chinese expansionism.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace said: “China is embarking on one of the biggest military spends and military investments in history. It’s growing its navy and air force at a huge rate, extremely fast. Obviously it’s engaged in some controversial and disputed areas.
“That is what China is doing at the moment and it’s right that the UK alongside other allies such as Australia stands up for the rules-based system and international law.”
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