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China warns AUKUS submarine deal increases nuclear proliferation risks


LONDON — China has criticized the United States, Britain and Australia for their pact on nuclear-powered submarines, which Beijing and some experts say could set a dangerous precedent at a precarious time for the global security.

The deal, formally announced by 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 sparked fears among arms control experts. And Beijing hit back on Tuesday, accusing the trio of jeopardizing the nuclear non-proliferation system.

“The three countries have gone further and further down a wrong and dangerous path for their own selfish political gains, in complete disregard of the concerns of the international community,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. said during a regular press briefing.

A nuclear precedent?

The five major nuclear-weapon states – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – are all signatories to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which s is committed to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and to working for nuclear disarmament.

However, the AUKUS agreement uses a clause that allows fissile material, the key component of nuclear weapons, to be transferred to a non-nuclear state without the need for inspection by the International Security Agency. Atomic Energy (IAEA) of the UN when not in use. for “explosive use”.

The pact will make Australia the seventh country in the world to have nuclear-powered submarines after the United States, Britain, France, China, India and Russia.

The United Nations nuclear watchdog said in a statement on Tuesday that it had been assured by AUKUS partners that they would abide by the current non-proliferation regime, but added that it “must ensure that no risk of proliferation will arise from this project”.

The White House said the three nations “have consulted regularly with the IAEA over the past year” and will continue to work to “strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime and set the strongest precedent for nuclear non-proliferation.” proliferation”.

China’s mission to the UN nonetheless called the deal a clear violation of the nuclear treaty that could help fuel an arms race.

“The irony of #AUKUS is that two nuclear-weapon states that claim to uphold the highest nuclear non-proliferation standard are transferring tons of weapons-grade enriched uranium to a non-nuclear-weapon state, violating clearly the object and purpose of the NPT,” he said in one of a series of tweets on Monday.

The mission went on to say that the AUKUS deal would “harm the authority and effectiveness of the international non-proliferation system,” a possible hint that China may reject the treaty in the future.

And while Beijing has its own interests, China was not alone in expressing concern over the issue.

“The concern is that other countries could capitalize on this precedent by developing or renewing an interest in nuclear-powered submarines and using it to evade IAEA safeguards on their nuclear programs,” Ludovica Castelli , a doctoral candidate in nuclear issues at the University of Leicester in England, told NBC News.

“Besides the benign or malicious intent a country may have, a decrease in IAEA monitoring activity is a negative trend. Moreover, there is an inverse relationship between the credibility and robustness of the application process and the entrenchment of the double standard.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told the Guardian newspaper that the Chinese criticism was “not based on facts”.

For its part, China has been engaged in recent years in expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons, according to independent experts and Pentagon assessments, while Washington and other governments have accused it of doing nothing. to prevent its ally, North Korea, from building up its own stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Chinese state media has dismissed reports of its nuclear weapons investments as US propaganda, and the US nuclear arsenal remains far larger than China’s stockpile.

The United States and its allies believe they had to forge the defense pact to counter China’s growing military might and what it sees 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 bring peace and stability” to the Indo-Pacific. . He stressed that the deal, which has been in the works for nearly 18 months, should come as no surprise to Beijing.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in an interview with NBC News on Sunday that China posed “a systemic challenge to the global order.”

But while the submarine deal comes at a time of heightened tensions, it also landed at a time of heightened nuclear security fears.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.