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Australia has rejected Chinese and French criticism of Canberra’s decision to sign a defence pact with the US and UK to build nuclear-powered submarines, saying the “incredible uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific” made the deal a necessity.
Peter Dutton, Australia’s defence minister, said the country would not be deterred from deepening its alliance with its western partners after Beijing said the partnership would undermine regional stability and stoke an arms race.
“This is not the first time that we’ve seen different outbursts from China in terms of Australia’s position,” he said in Washington alongside Marise Payne, the foreign minister, after talks with US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, defence secretary. “That’s the reality, and no amount of propaganda can dismiss the facts.”
The deal has also sparked fury in France because it replaced a multibillion-dollar agreement for Naval Group, the French defence contractor, to build conventional diesel-powered submarines for Canberra.
Dutton said the government had acted on the advice of its armed forces and that French technology was not a viable option to meet regional security needs in the coming decades.
“The French have a version which was not superior to that operated by the United States and the United Kingdom,” he said.
The agreement has won broad support in Australia, with the main opposition party and voters backing the deal. An opinion poll by Roy Morgan found 57 per cent of Australians approved.
Rex Patrick, an independent senator and former submariner who was critical of the French deal, applauded the agreement and said the relationship with Paris was already “broken” because of delays and billions of dollars in cost rises.
“They originally intended to start the strategic partnership agreement in 2016 and conclude it in 2017. It didn’t get concluded until 2019,” he said. “They blew out even the agreement on how they were going to partner by two years.”
The security pact has raised deeper questions about how Canberra will balance the relationship between the US, its closest diplomatic and military ally, and China, its biggest trading partner.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, visited Australia in 2014 and delivered an address to parliament and the countries signed a trade deal the following year.
Relations soured after Canberra introduced a foreign influence law three years later following a scandal involving a Chinese businessman giving donations to an Australian MP.
The rupture worsened after Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, repeatedly called for an independent inquiry into the origins of coronavirus in China.
Beijing has retaliated by imposing sanctions on a range of Australian products, including wine and barley, and Chinese officials have refused to take calls from their counterparts.
Morrison said he did not want to be forced into making a binary choice between Washington and Beijing but the security deal had disrupted that calculation, according to analysts.
“The relationship is bad and getting worse, so [China] may retaliate against Australia, but that was going to happen anyway,” said Brendan Sargeant, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University.
“If China’s strategic goal is to separate us from the US then clearly it’s failed, so that would mean this would clearly annoy them,” he said, adding that Beijing was well aware of Australia’s policy of “being friends with both and allies with one”.