Has Joe Biden's alarm about China rubbed off on Australia and Britain? The tripartite agreement signed over the weekend, after months of secret preparations, enables the three countries – Australia, Britain and the U.S. – to send nuclear submarines to the South China Sea.
The responses have been harsh. China expressed concern over a nuclear arms race and instability. France was deeply insulted – not only was it not told in advance about the new deal, but it lost a giant contract to manufacture submarines for Australia. And for the first time in history, France recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra.
Over the weekend, Australia announced the military partnership with Britain and the U.S. that will enable the dispatch of nuclear submarines to monitor operations of China in the South China Sea. According to Reuters and the New York Times, the agreement, aimed at increasing the Western military presence in the area of the South China Sea, constitutes a challenge to the territorial ambitions of China in the region. The actual result of the agreement will be patrols by Australian submarines from the South China Sea all the way to Taiwan.
Australia itself has felt threatened by China, and three years ago it banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from providing equipment for the country's 5G network. With the latest agreement, Australia is placing its trust in American naval power.
As Canberra's relations with Beijing have soured recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison established the new partnership with Australia's closest ally, the U.S. The concern over China also comes from a recent report by Japanese intelligence sources that China intends to invade Taiwan.
American officials said that according to the agreement, Australia promised not to arm the submarines with nuclear weapons, but rather only with conventional weapons like submarine-launched cruise missiles, but even this military presence actually changes the balance of forces in the region. A spokesman for the Chinese government said that the agreement could threaten regional stability, encourage an arms race and violate international agreements for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The harshest responses to the tripartite agreement came from Paris. France recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra. A giant $66 billion deal signed in 2016 between Australia and French shipbuilder Naval Group for the construction of a fleet of conventional submarines was cancelled. Instead, according to the tripartite agreement, eight submarines will be built in Germany using American and British technologies.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, citing what he called the "exceptional gravity" of the matter, ordered the recall of the ambassadors for consultations. The spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Ned Price, said that France is an important ally and that the U.S. will take action in the coming days to resolve the crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his part, tried to calm the outcry. But according to Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at a think tank in Washington, this was not enough for the French authorities, especially after they learned that the agreement was months in the making, Reuters said.