LONDON — China has criticized the United States, Britain and Australia over their pact on nuclear-powered submarines, which Beijing and some experts warned could set a dangerous precedent at a precarious moment for global security.
The agreement, formally announced by the leaders of the three Western allies in San Diego on Monday, will provide Australia with conventionally armed submarines as part of a broader effort to counter the growing geopolitical threat from China.
The deal — known as AUKUS — exploits a loophole in a landmark global nuclear treaty, which has raised fears from arms control experts. And Beijing hit back Tuesday, accusing the trio of putting the system of nuclear nonproliferation at risk.
"The three countries have gone further and further down a wrong and dangerous road for their own selfish political gains, in complete disregard of the concerns of the international community,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular news briefing.
A nuclear-powered precedent?
The five main states with nuclear weapons — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China — are all signatories to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which pledges to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and work toward nuclear disarmament.
However, the AUKUS deal uses a clause that allows fissile material, the key component in nuclear weapons, to be transferred to a nonnuclear state without the need for it to be inspected by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when it is not used for “explosive use.”
The pact will make Australia the seventh country in the world to have nuclear-powered submarines after the U.S., Britain, France, China, India and Russia.
The United Nations nuclear watchdog said in a statement Tuesday that it had been assured by the AUKUS partners that they would uphold the current nonproliferation regime, but added that it "must ensure that no proliferation risks will emanate from this project."
The White House said that the three nations “have consulted regularly with the IAEA over the past year” and would continue to work to “strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime and set the strongest non-proliferation precedent.”
The Chinese Mission to the U.N. nonetheless called the deal a clear breach of the nuclear treaty that could help fuel an arms race.
"The irony of #AUKUS is that two nuclear weapons states who claim to uphold the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard are transferring tons of weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state, clearly violating the object and purpose of the NPT," it said in one of a series of tweets Monday.
The mission went on to say that the AUKUS deal would "damage the authority and effectiveness of the international non-proliferation system," a possible hint that China might reject the treaty in the future.
And while Beijing may have its own interests, China wasn't alone in expressing concerns on the issue.
“The concern is that other countries might capitalize on this precedent by developing or renewing an interest in nuclear-powered submarines and using it to evade the IAEA safeguards on their nuclear programs,” Ludovica Castelli, a doctoral researcher on nuclear issues at the University of Leicester in England, told NBC News.
“Besides the benign or malicious intent that a country may have, a decrease in the IAEA monitoring activity is a negative pattern. Moreover, there is an inverse relationship between the credibility and robustness of the enforcement process and the entrenchment of the double standard.”
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told the Guardian newspaper that the Chinese criticism was “not grounded in fact.”
For its part, China has engaged in an expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal in recent years, according to independent experts and the Pentagon’s assessments, while Washington and other governments have accused it of failing to take action to prevent its ally, North Korea, from building up its own nuclear weapons stockpile.
Chinese state media have dismissed reports about its investments in nuclear weapons as propaganda by the United States, and the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains far larger than China’s stockpile.
The U.S. and its allies believe they had to forge the defense pact to counter China’s growing military power and what they see as its aggressive behavior in the region.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One on Monday that the deal was part of Washington’s efforts “to help ensure peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific. He emphasized that the deal, which has been in the works for almost 18 months, should not come as a surprise to Beijing.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in an interview with NBC News Sunday that China represents “a systemic challenge for the world order.”
But while the submarine deal comes at a time of heightened tensions, it also landed at a time of heightened fears around nuclear security.
Russia has stoked tensions in recent months, with President Vladimir Putin's decision to leave the New START bilateral treaty with the U.S., coming after repeated threats that he could consider using nukes as a last resort amid battlefield setbacks in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cautious when asked about the AUKUS deal in his daily call with foreign journalists Tuesday. "A lot of questions arise related to the problem of nonproliferation, and, of course, special transparency is needed here and it is necessary to answer those questions that arise," he said.
The pact also comes less than a week after it emerged that Iran has begun enriching uranium close to weapons-grade levels, according to a report released by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, sending Tehran closer to becoming a nuclear power.
The AUKUS deal was first signed in 2021, a move that infuriated France, which as a result lost out on a $40 billion agreement signed in 2016 to supply submarines to Australia.
Experts and campaigners for nuclear disarmament have expressed concerns about the deal since it was first announced.
“The big proliferation risk is precedent,” said James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I’m not worried Australia will develop nukes. I worry that other states with more nefarious goals would face minimal pushback for withdrawing nuclear material from IAEA safeguards, as Australia will do,” he said in a series of tweets Monday.
"The AUKUS partners have tried hard to mitigate the technical and proliferation risks and, to some extent, they have succeeded. Nonetheless, the plan seems significantly more risky to me than the French-Australian alternative," he added.
But Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London, said the exemption for naval nuclear reactors has always been there and pointed out that India leased Soviet nuclear-powered submarines before it got nuclear weapons.
"That said, China has claimed that the transfer of the highly-enriched uranium itself represents a breach of the spirit of the NPT," Kaushal said. "The delivery of the fuel in sealed reactors and the absence of an Australian fuel cycle could potentially alleviate some of these concerns."