Australia on Friday shrugged off Chinese anger over its decision to acquire US nuclear-powered submarines, while vowing to defend the rule of law in airspace and waters where Beijing has staked hotly contested claims.
US President Joe Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on Wednesday, extending US nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.
France — still smarting over the move, as it scuppered a deal for Paris to supply conventional submarines to Australia — recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra late Friday in protest.
Beijing described the new alliance as an “extremely irresponsible” threat to regional stability, questioning Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and warning the Western allies that they risked “shooting themselves in the foot”.
China has its own “very substantive programme of nuclear submarine building”, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued Friday in an interview with radio station 2GB.
“They have every right to take decisions in their national interests for their defence arrangements and of course so does Australia and all other countries,” he said.
In a series of media interviews, the Australian leader said his government was reacting to changing dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region, where territory is increasingly contested and competition is rising.
Australia is “very aware” of China’s nuclear submarine capabilities and growing military investment, he told Channel Seven television.
“We are interested in ensuring that international waters are always international waters and international skies are international skies, and that the rule of law applies equally in all of these places,” he said.
Australia wanted to ensure that there were no “no-go zones” in areas governed by international law, Morrison said.
“That’s very important whether it is for trade, whether it is for things like undersea cables, for planes and where they can fly. I mean that is the order that we need to preserve. That is what peace and stability provides for and that is what we are seeking to achieve.”
‘Stab in the back’
The Australian move infuriated France, which lost a contract to supply conventional submarines to Australia that was worth Aus$50 billion (31 billion euros, $36.5 billion) when signed in 2016.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was a “stab in the back” from Australia.
France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said Friday that Paris was unable to trust Canberra in ongoing European Union trade deal talks following the decision, before the ambassadors were recalled.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in Washington, said she understood the “disappointment” in Paris and hoped to work with France to ensure it understands “the value we place on the bilateral relationship and the work that we want to continue to do together”.
But the main backdrop to the Australia-US-Britain alliance is China’s rise.
China claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, rejecting competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing has been accused of deploying a range of military hardware including anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles there, and ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the waters to be without basis.
China has also imposed tough trade sanctions on a range of Australian products, widely seen in Australia as a reaction to Canberra’s opposition to Chinese investment in sensitive areas and to its questioning of the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
‘The forever partnership’
Morrison said the new defence alliance, prepared in 18 months of discussions with the United States and Britain, will be permanent.
“It involves a very significant commitment not just today but forever. That is why I refer to it as the forever partnership. It is one that will see Australia kept secure and safe into the future,” he said.
Australia’s defence spending will rise, Morrison said, as the new alliance also requires greater investment in cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and undersea capabilities.
Morrison told Australian media that the defence alliance had been “well received” in his discussions so far with leaders in Japan, India, Singapore, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
Indonesia’s government said it took note “cautiously” of the agreement.
“Indonesia is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region,” the foreign ministry added in a statement.
Speaking during a visit to Washington for talks with his US counterparts, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton was even more dismissive of the reaction by some Chinese officials and government-backed media to the deal, describing it as “counterproductive and immature and frankly embarrassing”.
Dutton said Australia was willing to host more US Marines on rotation through the northern city of Darwin and wanted to see air capability enhanced.