World

China has hit out at the US, UK and Australia over their pact to create new nuclear-powered submarines, saying they have “gone further down a dangerous road”.

It follows Rishi Sunak meeting US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego to announce the next stage of the AUKUS partnership plan.

The plan will deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as it seeks to counter Chinese activities in the Pacific Ocean.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the three countries had “disregarded” concerns of the international community, Reuters news agency reported.

The three nations have insisted the pact does not increase the risk of nuclear proliferation. The vessels will carry conventional weapons and the nuclear reactors will be sealed shut.

Mr Sunak said the UK, US and Australia would work together “keeping our oceans free” with a new generation of attack submarines.

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2:26

Why are UK and US selling nuclear-powered subs to Australia?

“For the first time ever, it will mean three fleets of submarines working together across both the Atlantic and Pacific, keeping our oceans free, open, and prosperous for decades to come,” the British prime minister said.

The AUKUS partnership was first announced in 2021. Since then, the UK has published its integrated review of foreign and security policy, which highlights China’s “more aggressive stance”.

President Biden said the US could ask for “no better partners” than the UK and Australia when it came to ensuring the security of the Pacific.

Analysis: Why is China so critical of the AUKUS pact?

China’s response to the AUKUS defence pact was predictably angry.

Of course the authorities here knew it was coming, but the announcement itself, complete with photoshoot, and global display of solidarity comes at the precise time relations with the US have been on a deteriorating spiral. It will thus have felt particularly provocative.

There are many reasons why China doesn’t like AUKUS.

Firstly because it self-consciously encroaches on the Indo Pacific which China sees as its backyard. Vital trade routes aside, China views the region as an arena within which it has the right to be the dominant power.

The key reason however is its interests in Taiwan, the self-governing island China sees as its own. Xi Jinping has said many times that China reserves the right to take it by force.

Put bluntly, China does not want a US-led defence pact getting in the way if and when it does make such a move.

More broadly China also sees AUKUS as yet another example of the US-led policy of “containment”, a belief that the West is ideologically opposed to an ascendant China and will seek to stifle its growth as a matter of principle.

So many recent events from the US imposing technology sanctions on China to it shooting down the so-called spy balloon have fed this narrative.

The scary thing is that as distrust deepens it’s increasingly hard to see how either side backs down.

Asked if he was worried China would see the AUKUS submarine deal as aggression, Mr Biden replied: “No.” He said he expected to speak to Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon, but did not say when.

He had said last month that he expected to speak with his Chinese counterpart about a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that flew through American airspace, worsening already tense relations between the two countries.

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1:38

Why is Rishi Sunak in San Diego?

First spotted by the US on 28 January, its military eventually shot the balloon down on 4 February off the coast of South Carolina on the orders of President Biden.

It had reportedly flown over a number of sensitive military sites.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week the US wanted to re-establish regular communications with China.

“Over the course of 18 months we have communicated with [China] about AUKUS and sought more information from them about their intentions,” he added, referring to China’s military build-up, including nuclear-powered submarines.

Mr Wenbin said on Wednesday that China and the US were maintaining necessary communications, adding: “We believe that the value and significance of communication is to enhance understanding, manage differences, not for the sake of communication.”

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