Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the trio were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.
The United States, Britain and Australia announced a new security partnership for the Indo-Pacific in a move hailed by regional allies but denounced by China as intensifying an arms race in the region.
Under the partnership, announced by President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the United States and Britain will provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines.
The United States and its allies are looking for ways to push back against China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military buildup, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the contested South China Sea.
The three western leaders did not mention China by name in Wednesday’s announcement and senior Biden administration officials, who briefed reporters ahead of time, said the partnership was not aimed at countering Beijing.
However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the trio were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.
Countries should not build partnerships that target third countries, he told a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
“China will closely watch the situation’s development.”
In a three-way virtual announcement, the leaders stressed Australia will not be fielding nuclear weapons but using nuclear propulsion systems for the vessels, to guard against threats.
“We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term,” said Biden.
“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region, and how it may evolve because the future of each of our nations and indeed the world depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” he said.
Morrison said the submarines would be built in the city of Adelaide and Australia would meet all of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations.
Johnson said the pact, dubbed AUKUS, was not meant to be adversarial towards anyone and it would reduce the costs of Britain’s next generation of nuclear submarines.
“Now that we have created AUKUS we expect to accelerate the development of other advanced defence systems including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities,” Johnson told parliament.
One US official said the partnership was the result of months of engagements by military and political leaders during which Britain – which recently sent an aircraft carrier to Asia – had indicated it wanted to do more in the region.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the focus on the Indo-Pacific but said Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines would not be allowed in its territorial waters under a long-standing nuclear-free policy.
Singapore said it had long had relations with Australia, Britain and the United States and hoped their grouping would contribute to peace and stability.
Japan said the three countries’ strengthening of security and defence cooperation was important for peace and security.
A US official briefing before the announcement said Biden had not mentioned the plans “in any specific terms” to Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a call last Thursday, but did “underscore our determination to play a strong role in the Indo-Pacific.”
US officials said nuclear propulsion would allow the Australian navy to operate more quietly, for longer periods, and provide deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.
‘Angry and bitter’
The partnership ends Australia’s 2016 deal with French shipbuilder Naval Group to build it a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines, a spokesperson for Morrison told Reuters.
France accused Biden of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
Naval Group said in a statement that Australia’s decision was a major disappointment.
Biden said the three governments would launch an 18-month consultation period “to determine every element of this program, from workforce, to training requirements, to production timelines” and to ensure full compliance with non-proliferation commitments.
The pact should be a boon for the US defense industry and among the firms that could benefit are General Dynamics Corp (GD.N) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc (HII.N).
General Dynamics’ Electric Boat business does much of the design work for US submarines, but critical subsystems such as electronics and nuclear power plants are made by BWX Technologies Inc (BWXT.N)
US officials did not give a time frame for when Australia would deploy a nuclear-powered submarine, or how many would be built. They said that since Australia does not have any nuclear infrastructure, it would require a sustained effort over years.
A US official said Washington had shared nuclear propulsion technology only once before – with Britain in 1958 – and added: “This is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects, I do not anticipate that this will be undertaken in other circumstances…We view this as a one-off.”