Just days after an apparent détente between China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Chinese state media has laid out its conditions: AUKUS is dangerous, AUKUS must go.
“AUKUS is a tool to stir up trouble and create unwarranted suspicion about Beijing’s intentions,” asserts an unattributed editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times news service.
“If Australia doesn’t want to send the wrong signal to China and deepen the distrust between the two countries, it needs more strategic sobriety when it comes to AUKUS.”
The Party’s line emerged just days after Mr Albanese and Mr Xi met on the sidelines of the G-20 leaders’ summit in Indonesia.
It was the first such leadership contact in five years.
At the heart of the extended diplomatic spat was Australia’s call for an international investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus, ongoing opposition to Mr Xi’s territorial expansionism, and criticism of Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.
China retaliated with economic sanctions, often implausibly passed off as anti-dumping or quality control standards issues.
Matters deteriorated further in September last year after then prime minister Scott Morrison announced a new agreement with the United States and United Kingdom. At its heart was a plan to build eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.
It’s not supposed to be a military alliance. Instead, it’s billed as a technology and information-sharing agreement between long-trusted friends.
But Australian Defence Force Academy associate professor of International and Political Studies, Dr Jian Zhang, warns we’ve not heard the end of China’s complaints. “One can expect significant tensions between China and the AUKUS countries ahead,” he said.
With friends like these …
Beijing agreed to the Xi-Albanese talks because Canberra had “shown a willingness to improve and develop the bilateral relationship”.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the two nations have “highly complementary economic structures”, expressing the “hope that Australia will provide a favourable business environment for Chinese firms that invest or operate in Australia”.
Mr Xi got to extend the hand of friendship to Mr Albanese.
But the big stick behind it was left to his propaganda machine.
“If Canberra chooses to ignore Beijing’s concerns over AUKUS, the pact will remain a thorn in the side of China-Australia relations,” the Communist Party editorial reads. “It is also likely to undermine a clear pathway to the healthy development of bilateral ties.”
Since the September 2021 announcement, Beijing has stridently attacked AUKUS as a risk to nuclear proliferation, escalating an arms race and undermining regional stability.
At the heart of its objections is the provision of nuclear power plants for Australia’s new submarine fleet. Meanwhile, satellite photos reveal construction has begun on China’s own new generation of nuclear-powered (and, unlike Australia, nuclear-armed) submarines.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute, internationally renowned strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman says nuclear submarines are a good idea for Australia.
“They’re very effective. They give you a lot of distance. They’re hard to detect, and they worry opponents,” he told the institute’s executive director Michael Fullilove.
“There’s nothing particularly wrong with the ambition. If you can get them, they’ll be very effective. Whether you’ll get them remains to be seen.”
A nuclear family?
“AUKUS is clearly a threat to regional peace and security, as well as a barrier to improving China-Australia ties,” the Global Times states. “What Beijing hopes for Canberra is that the latter will not follow the US blindly in challenging China’s interests, becoming a pawn in the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China.”
But it’s a matter of whose interests matter most.
“You had China, the great opportunity. Then – not such a great opportunity. And now – definitely a problem,” Sir Freedman, a professor of war studies at Kings College London, summarised. “Thus the much closer alliance, therefore, with the US – and with the UK potentially with AUKUS.”
Dr Zhang says Beijing’s stance represents the potential AUKUS has for counterbalancing China’s growing regional power.
“It can rapidly increase the military capabilities of US allies, accelerate the integration of military operation systems between the US and its alliance partners, and maintain and enhance the military superiority of the US-led alliance in the region,” he wrote last week for the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA).
But Sir Freedman added there were “big issues” around being tied so closely to Washington policy. And such a “special partnership” was a balancing act the United Kingdom was struggling to come to grips with. “Is this wise? What would happen if you have another Trumpist-type president?” he said.
He says the implications of such a relationship needs debating. “I’m not saying it’s wrong. “But it has implications because you’re always going to be tied to the Americans and, to a degree, the Brits, as a result of having a nuclear fleet.”
China is attempting to drive a wedge into the diplomatic split left by Morrison’s undiplomatic dumping of the previous $90 billion deal with France to convert one of its nuclear submarine designs into a diesel-electric power plant.
The editorial highlighted French President Emmanuel Macron’s latest offer to renew the contract because “Australians are incapable of producing and maintaining in-house” a nuclear-powered fleet.
“AUKUS is facing problems over technology transfer and the violation of conventions over nuclear proliferation, so Macron was trying to remind Australia that it has a better option,” the editorial reads.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s diplomats have been using their voices at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to challenge the AUKUS agreement.
Last week, Beijing’s permanent representative to the United Nations insisted the IAEA should not have to spend money safeguarding any such nuclear technology exchange.
He had previously attacked the Director General of the IAEA for “overstepping his duties” in reporting on the implications of the arrangement. And he accused an attempt to modify the IAEA safeguards guideline of being a “whitewash” of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty.
The AUKUS nations later withdrew the proposal.
“China’s attitude is clear: It is not against establishing security pacts or military co-operation between countries in the Asia-Pacific region, as long as they don’t target a third country in an attempt to undermine its interests,” the CCP’s editorial reads.
But those interests are undermining those of Japan, India, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia – and a host of other Indo-Pacific nations.
Thus the compulsion among smaller states to band together for support.
“Chinese security analysts overwhelmingly see AUKUS as fundamentally an anti-China military clique, formed as a vital part of US grand strategy in its intensified rivalry with China, and of representing a ‘critical step’ by the US to construct an Asia-Pacific NATO,” says Dr Zhang.
This proves Beijing’s fears over AUKUS are greater than Australia’s new submarine fleet, says Stanford University Hoover Institution analyst Michael Auslin.
“The prospect of adding Japan to the Australia-United Kingdom-United States defence co-operation pact … could transform security co-operation among liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific like no other previous alliance, or quasi-alliance has managed,” he writes.
Such moves appear to be underway already.
In October, Canberra and Tokyo signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Earlier, in January, a reciprocal military access agreement was reached.
“With their new security co-operation declaration, the two countries pledge to “deepen practical co-operation and further enhance interoperability” between their militaries while sharing intelligence, co-operating on cyber defence, and working to secure their supply chains, among other actions,” Mr Auslin says.
“If fully implemented, the proposed scope of co-operation would make the partnership among the most important for each nation.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel