China warned Tuesday that the U.S. and its nuclear allies Australia and the United Kingdom were heading down a "path of error and danger" after they unveiled a deal that will see Australia purchase nuclear-powered attack submarines. The submarine purchase is aimed at modernizing Australia's fleet amid growing concern about China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
President Biden flew to San Diego for talks Monday with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the nations' 18-month-old nuclear partnership, which has been given the acronym AUKUS. The three leaders formally announced the plan as they delivered remarks from Naval Base Point Loma at the entry of San Diego Bay, flanked by U.S. sailors with the USS Sterett destroyer in the background.
"Today, as we stand at an inflection point in history, where the where the hard work of advancing deterrence and promoting stability is going to affect the prospect of peace for decades to come, the United States can ask for no better partner in the Indo-Pacific, where so much of our shared future will be written," Mr. Biden said.
The partnership between the three nations, announced in 2021, enabled Australia to access nuclear-powered submarines, which are stealthier and more capable than conventionally powered vessels, as a counterweight to China's military buildup.
"The latest joint statement from the U.S., U.K. and Australia demonstrates that the three countries, for the sake of their own geopolitical interests, completely disregard the concerns of the international communities and are walking further and further down the path of error and danger," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Tuesday.
China has argued that the AUKUS deal violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It contends that the transfer of nuclear weapons materials from a nuclear-weapon state to a non-nuclear-weapon state is a "blatant" violation of the spirit of the pact. Australian officials have pushed back against the criticism, arguing that they are working to acquire nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed, submarines.
Mr. Biden emphasized that the submarines "will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind on them," and said the three leaders are "deeply committed to strengthening nuclear non-proliferation regime."
"The question is really how does China choose to respond because Australia is not backing away from what it... sees to be doing in its own interests here," said Charles Edel, a senior adviser and Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think that probably from Beijing's perspective they've already counted out Australia as a wooable mid country. It seemed to have fully gone into the U.S. camp."
Australia is buying up to five Virginia-class boats as part of AUKUS. A future generation of submarines will be built in the U.K. and in Australia with U.S. technology and support. The U.S. would also step up its port visits in Australia to provide the country with more familiarity with the nuclear-powered technology before it has such subs of its own.
In a statement before their meeting, the leaders said their countries have worked for decades to sustain peace, stability and prosperity around the globe, including in the Indo-Pacific.
"We believe in a world that protects freedom and respects human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order," they said in the statement, released before their joint appearance.
"The steps we are announcing today will help us to advance these mutually beneficial objectives in the decades to come," they said.
San Diego is Mr. Biden's first stop on a three-day trip to California and Nevada. He will discuss gun violence prevention in the community of Monterey Park, California, and his plans to lower prescription drug costs in Las Vegas. The trip will include fundraising stops as he steps up his political activities before an expected announcement next month that he will seek reelection in 2024.
Mr. Biden was also set to meet individually with Albanese and Sunak, an opportunity to coordinate strategy on Russia's war in Ukraine, the global economy and more.
The secretly brokered AUKUS deal included the Australian government's cancellation of a $66 billion contract for a French-built fleet of conventional submarines, which sparked a diplomatic row within the Western alliance that took months to mend.