While the South China Sea has been a hotbed of contention in the modern era, for a decade or so these tensions have spread to the entire Indo-Pacific sphere. The latest announcement of Australia’s momentous acquisition of nuclear submarines, however, has made the debate all the more bitter and vituperative at least from the Chinese side, an examination of response in Chinese language media shows.
A steady tempo of increasingly aggressive actions by China in the South China Sea, through the early 2000s and 2010s slowly saw the Quad come into being. These actions included interceptions of aircraft and boats in waters that China claimed as its own and then proceeded to the building of artificial islands to extend land claims out to sea.
By 2014 India, Japan, and the United States (and Australia since 2015) were concerned enough to conduct their first regular annual naval exercises from the Bay of Bengal to the Western Pacific. While it is safe to say that the Quad currently acts as a loose confederacy with its focus on defence, all four countries have repeatedly stated their intent to collaborate on cutting-edge technologies, climate change, and the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to Oceania and other regional nations. Several observers interpreted this as a dilution of the group’s initial goals.
At the same time, Australia – stuck in a seemingly interminable contract for non-nuclear French submarines whose costs had escalated exponentially, and which no longer fit Australia’s revised threat perception – was looking for a way out and sensed that the anti-nuclear mood in Australia had turned. It was felt that to limit the negative French reaction that would ensue, a grand narrative of a new alliance would have to be built, one justified by a threat large enough for Australia to go nuclear. Within days of the French contract being cancelled, the US announced AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between itself, Australia, and the United Kingdom, to assist Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.
The Chinese foreign ministry reacted sharply, with then spokesperson Zhao Lijian calling it an Anglo-Saxon clique, blaming the US for persisting with the cold war mentality and trying to replicate a NATO. In May 2022, during a video call with Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinator for cooperation, ahead of a US-ASEAN summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “The US Indo-Pacific strategy goes against the trend of the times and does not serve the common and long-term interests of countries in East Asia”.
He also said the region faced dangers from the “Five Eyes” alliance, the Quad and the AUKUS.
Then on March 14, 2023, the tangibles of AUKUS were announced by US President Biden. These would involve increasing the frequency of US and UK port visits to Australia, and Washington to sell Australia between three and five Virginia class nuclear attack submarines. Eventually, Australia will design and produce its nuclear submarines with American technology on the British Astute design.
This was when the Chinese language press erupted in a fury.
The quasi-formal response started with an article published on China.org.cn (which is under the auspices of China’s Information Office reproduced by national broadcaster CCTV) claiming that AUKUS was heading down a path of irreversible confrontation by destroying the strategic balance in the Western Pacific, that it impacted regional nuclear non-proliferation in providing a non-nuclear weapons state with a nuclear submarine and thereby setting a bad precedent.
Another article published by China Youth Daily’s official handle on Baidu focussed on Australian voices against AUKUS or doubting its practicality from different sections of Australian society. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was quoted as calling it the country’s “worst decision” in a century; Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, was quoted saying that the deal will face many practical difficulties and was signed only because of the domestic vote bank in Australia.
The official Baidu account of Guancha, a popular portal maintained by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, also focuses on the domestic vote bank angle but adds racial overtones claiming the ‘white man’s burden’ syndrome and can only be countered by a robust Chinese response.
The Chinese government-maintained Baijiahao portal ran an article that brings in the Taiwan angle, claiming that this augmentation of Australian naval capability primarily intends to deter Chinese action on Taiwan. It dismissed Australia’s specific lack of commitment to Taiwan, and pointed out that Australia is critically dependent on the Chinese market for its economy.
An article published on PLA-affiliated website 163.com turns more vituperative, labelling AUKUS “a litter of rats and snakes”, claiming that AUKUS countries are scared of a modernising China’s military, while going on to call US submarines “trash”.
The irony in some of these responses must be pointed out: namely that China itself has been one of the most prolific nuclear proliferators, arming both North Korea and Pakistan with nuclear weapons. Further, the Western impulse to protect Taiwan has arisen out of its threats to Taiwan on several occasions. If the submarines are “trash” as claimed, they shouldn’t be eliciting the kind of sharp Chinese responses we’re seeing.
Presumably sensing these ironies, the formal responses have avoided this rhetorical action trap. Wang Wenbin (the foreign ministry spokesperson ) reiterated the official response “Asia-Pacific is the most dynamic and fastest-growing region in the world. China urges the three countries to discard the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and refrain from doing anything that undermines regional and world peace and stability”.
Meanwhile, an article in the official People’s Daily repeated the “replicating NATO in Asia” argument but added a twist on how this would destabilise the Korean Peninsula, possibly indicating a threat.
In summary, as the tempo of alliances like Quad and AUKUS pick up, China is being more direct and shrill in its wording. Essentially it argues that this letter soup of alliances is coming up in a vacuum with no causation whatsoever by China. Yet it proposes no avenues of de-escalation, be it in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits. The question that remains unanswered is what next?
Namrata Hasija is a Research Fellow with the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy and her primary area of interest is Chinese foreign policy and India-Taiwan relations.