China and France reacted angrily to an agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom to help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines, prompting the White House on Thursday to try to smooth over tensions.
The agreement is part of a new security partnership, known by the acronym AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and the United States), focused on the Indo-Pacific region.
The three English-speaking countries did not say their aim was to counter Chinese influence, but analysts universally saw this as a move to push back on Beijing's rise in the military and technology arenas.
"This partnership announced yesterday is not about any one country," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. "It's about advancing our strategic interests — the strategic interests of the United States, upholding the international rules-based order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."
'A stab in the back'
Because of this deal, Australia nullified a $43 billion contract with France for a dozen of the world's largest conventional submarines and instead decided to pursue nuclear-powered submarines using American technology. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted that U.S. technology was not available when the contract was finalized in 2016.
The agreement prompted French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to criticize Australia and the U.S. in comments aired on the France Info radio network.
"It's a stab in the back," he said. "We created a relationship of trust with Australia, and that trust has been broken."
Le Drian also criticized U.S. President Joe Biden, comparing him unfavorably to former President Donald Trump.
"This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do," Le Drian said. "I am angry and bitter. This isn't done between allies."
On Thursday, the French government in protest canceled a gala in Washington celebrating its U.S. alliance.
Psaki said the U.S. still sees France as an important partner.
"We value our relationship and our partnership with France on a variety of issues facing the global community, whether it's economic growth or whether it's the fight against COVID or addressing security throughout the world," she said. "And that has been a long-standing partnership for many, many years. I would leave it of course to our Australian partners to describe why they sought this new technology."
China also reacted angrily. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned Thursday during a press briefing in Beijing that the agreement "seriously undermines regional peace and stability." He accused the three nations of engaging in "extremely irresponsible behavior" and urged them to "abandon their Cold War mentality."
In response to China's statement, Psaki said, "We welcome stiff competition with the PRC [People's Republic of China]. We do not see conflict. Obviously, the president spoke with President Xi [Jinping] just a few days ago, and certainly we're committed to maintaining an open, high-level dialogue between the leaders."
When announcing the pact at a White House event on Wednesday, Biden said it was necessary.
"We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve." he said. "Because the future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead."
Subs will not carry nukes
Biden, Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stressed that these nuclear-powered submarines would not carry nuclear weapons.
"Let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability," Morrison said, speaking virtually to the White House, along with his U.S. and British counterparts. "And we will continue to meet all our nuclear nonproliferation obligations."
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters prior to the announcement set a timeline of 18 months for the three countries to work together to identify the optimal pathway for delivering the submarines.
Johnson said his country would play an important role in sharing knowledge with Australia, its former colony.
This agreement, he said, "will draw on the expertise that the U.K. has acquired over generations, dating back to the launch of the Royal Navy's first nuclear submarine over 60 years ago."
The new partnership will allow the three countries to share information and expertise more easily in key technological areas such as artificial intelligence, cybertechnology, quantum technologies, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities.
"This initiative is about making sure that each of us has a modern capability, the most modern capabilities we need to maneuver and defend against rapidly evolving threats," Biden said.
Biden noted that this was a multilateral effort, and that the trio welcomed help from longtime allies.
"The United States looks forward to working closely with France and other key countries as we go forward," he said.
Pushing back on China
Analysts said this pact, signed by countries that already shared close ties, was a clear sign of Washington's intention to remain a dominant and stabilizing power in the region.
"The U.S. effectively is willing to share almost everything it has," said professor Julian Ku, who focuses on international disputes and law at Hofstra University in New York. "It takes what's already a very deep alliance to another level."
The new fleet, which a Biden administration official described as having the characteristics of "stealth, speed, maneuverability [and] survivability," will have a broader range and can stay below the surface for long periods.
"Tactically, this will give Canberra an operational means to sustain undersea combat power for much longer durations throughout the western Pacific when compared to Australia's current diesel submarine," said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on Asia-Pacific security policy.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was clear who this agreement was aimed at.
"It's already clear from the context that building for a high-intensity warfare environment — and that's what a submarine does — there is really only one clear potential adversary in that equation," he said.
China's navy has a fleet of 60 submarines, which includes six nuclear-powered attack subs.
VOA's Wayne Lee contributed to this report.\