Faced with criticism from China, Australia says it defends international law

Australia swept China’s anger on Friday after announcing the purchase of US nuclear-powered submarines, Canberra pledging to uphold international law in the air and sea spaces claimed by Beijing.

China has a “very important nuclear submarine construction program,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in an interview with 2GB radio station on Friday.

“They have the right to make defense decisions in their own interests, and of course Australia and all other countries too,” he replied to criticism from Beijing.

China reacted strongly, describing the acquisition of these submarines as “extremely irresponsible” and threatening in particular stability in the Indo-Pacific region. She also pointed out that she calls into question international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

These Western allies risk “shooting themselves in the foot,” she warned.

The new security pact between Australia, the United States and Great Britain, announced Wednesday by US President Joe Biden, also provides for close collaboration between Washington and Canberra on cyber defense, andartificial intelligence notably.

“Blow in the back”

The announcement of this alliance did not fail to arouse the ire of France, which saw it slip away from a contract of 90 billion Australian dollars (56 billion euros) to provide Australia with 12 sub- powered sailors.

An announcement whose “exceptional gravity” led Paris to recall Friday for consultations its ambassadors in the United States and Australia, a first.

The French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian had previously deplored a “unilateral, brutal, unforeseeable decision”, while the Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune had added: “I do not see how we can trust the Australian partner ”, referring to the free trade agreement negotiations underway between the European Commission and Australia.

Mr. Morrison defended himself, saying that this information had been “transmitted directly to the President, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defense”, while saying he understood their “disappointment”.

“When I met the president at the end of June, I clearly told him […] of our concerns about the ability of conventional submarines to cope with the new strategic environment, ”said the Prime Minister on FIVEaa radio in Adelaide.

“And I made it very clear to him that this was an issue Australia had to decide on taking into account its national interest.”

From Washington on Friday evening, his Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne added: “I fully understand the disappointment. […] But we will continue to work constructively and in close collaboration with our French colleagues ”.

“Ensuring peace”

The Australian head of government has hammered in various interviews that his government is responding to the current situation in the Asia-Pacific region, where the territories are increasingly disputed and where rivalry is intensifying.

Australia is “keenly aware” of the capacity of Chinese nuclear submarines and Beijing’s growing military spending, he told Channel Seven television.

“We want to make sure that international waters remain international just like airspace and that the rule of law applies the same everywhere,” he said.

Canberra wants to ensure that there are no “no-go zones” in areas governed by international law, the Australian prime minister said.

In the background, it is the rise of China which is the real reason for this alliance.

Trade tensions

It claims almost all of the South China Sea, rich in natural resources and through which billions of dollars of goods transit each year, and rejects the territorial claims of other riparians: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines.

China has been accused of deploying anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles, ignoring a decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which ruled that in 2016 that Beijing has no “historic rights” over this strategic sea.

Trade tensions between Beijing and Canberra have grown steadily since 2018. In recent months, China has imposed severe economic sanctions against many Australian products.

Mr. Morrison said this new alliance, which is the result of more than 18 months of discussions with Washington and Britain, will be permanent.

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