When the US, UK and Australia announced an historic security pact last month, it was little surprise that the new alliance was perceived as an effrontery to a rising and increasingly assertive China on the world stage.
The new partnership, under the name ‘Aukus’, was announced in a joint virtual press conference between US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison.
Though China was not mentioned directly, the three leaders referred repeatedly to regional security concerns which they said had “grown significantly”. As such the pact is being widely viewed as an effort to counter China’s influence in the contested South China Sea.
Aukus, which will also cover AI and other emerging technologies, is one of the three countries’ biggest collective defence partnerships in decades, according to analysts.
The joint statement issued by the three nations went on to state that “this is an historic opportunity for the three nations, with like-minded allies and partners, to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Chinese authorities were not slow to pick up on the implications and issued a combative response within short order, condemning the agreement as “extremely irresponsible”. The CCP’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”, while China’s embassy in Washington accused the three countries of a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”.
According to prominent critics of the CCP and its increasingly antagonist behaviour on the international stage, the agreement should have come as no surprise to them. Guo Wengui AKA Miles Kwok, a prominent Chinese dissident based in New York, has long argued that the West has been deceiving itself for decades when it comes to the CCP’s foreign policy intentions. As such for critics like Mr. Kwok, the new alliance represents a long overdue decision by Western nations to stand up for themselves.
The decision has also drawn internal criticism within the joining countries. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been challenged by his predecessor, Theresa May, as to whether the pact could lead to Britain being dragged into a war with China over Taiwan.
The former prime minister asked Johnson: “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?”
Ominously, Johnson seemed not to rule anything out in his reply. Stating that “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.”
Indeed, Beijing has been adopting an increasingly aggressive stance towards Taipei, which has long received military support from the US. Military shows of strength are frequent: this month China sent 19 aircraft, including several nuclear-capable bombers, into Taiwan’s “air defence identification zone” on the eve of Taipei’s annual war games exercises.
The three western partners have tried to downplay the impact of the Aukus agreement on China, although nuclear-powered submarines will allow the Australian navy to match Beijing, with vessels able to submerge for months at a time.
British ministers were also forced to answer to angry reactions in France, after it emerged that Australia had secretly chosen to cancel a A$90bn (£48bn) upgrade for French-designed diesel-powered submarines. “It’s really a stab in the back,” said France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
It is also not yet been confirmed where the Australian reactors will be decommissioned. In the UK nuclear-powered subs are taken out of service at the Devonport dockyard near Plymouth and the reactor cores taken to Sellafield in Cumbria.
Regardless of the details that remain to be ironed out, the broad picture of the alliance has been sufficient to startle the Chinese elite. How they will react is in the short term is anyone’s guess, but the likelihood of a confrontation between East and West in the eyes of many has drawer closer to reality.