Why China is genuinely worried about AUKUS

Foreign Affairs

The three-nation AUKUS security pact, which includes an American and British commitment to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, is the latest step in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China. It has sowed a genuine sense of fear in Beijing of things to come.

The HMS Astute, a British nuclear-powered attack submarine at an Australian Navy base in Perth, October 29, 2021. During the visit, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said his country is committed to getting its AUKUS-supplied nuclear submarines operating as quickly as possible. AAP Image/Richard Wainwright.

On September 15, 2021, with much fanfare and to China’s great chagrin, the leaders of Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. launched an “enhanced trilateral security partnership for the 21st century” known as AUKUS. The partnership’s immediate implications, according to official readouts, are wide in scope, and include information and technology sharing as well as a commitment to deeper integration of security and defense-related industrial bases and supply chains, particularly in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and cruise missiles.

Most of the headlines were dedicated to Washington and London’s plan to share nuclear-powered attack submarines with the Royal Australian Navy in lieu of a US$66 billion deal with France, and nothing is happening in the immediate future: The first batch of Australian nuclear submarines are not expected to hit the water until 2040 — if at all. But the deal provoked heated discussion in China.

Whereas a joint statement by the leaders of the AUKUS countries talks of a commitment to freedom, human dignity, rule of law, respect for sovereignty, and a peaceful fellowship of nations, China sees “danger,” as enumerated by Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wáng Yì 王毅 in a list of “five harms to the region” caused by AUKUS, which he said may:

  1. Trigger the risk of nuclear proliferation  
  2. Induce a new round of arms race
  3. Undermine regional prosperity and stability
  4. Sabotage the building of a nuclear-free zone in Southeast Asia
  5. Lead to the resurgence of the Cold War mentality 

It is easy to dismiss Chinese “dangers” as foreign-facing talking points, or to focus on mouth-frothing provocations by the commercial tabloid Global Times. It is also fair to point — as many have — to Beijing’s growing assertiveness toward its neighbors, its historically unprecedented military and naval buildup, and its utter incapacity to introspect on and acknowledge its own role in escalating regional tensions and arms racing.

But the threat perception in China is real. Mainland scholars and analysts’ responses to AUKUS display genuine concern — if not outright fear — of a U.S.-led “West” coalition with Japan against China. AUKUS has focused many of its fears on the future of the Indo-Pacific. Chinese scholars and government advisers’ anxieties can be classified into three broad categories:

Fear of containment 

That AUKUS is meant to contain China’s rise is “obvious at a glance,” according to retired PLA general and military commentator Zhāng Yuánwěi 张元伟. “Its long-term goal is to improve control of maritime security in the West Pacific,” explain Ān Gāng 安刚 and Sūn Chénghào 孙成昊 of Tsinghua’s Center for International Strategy and Security (CISS). All three view AUKUS as part of a larger Indo-Pacific geostrategic competition that “clearly means beefing up combat readiness in the near future in preparation for possible conflicts in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.”

Others see AUKUS as an American retrenchment and strategic readjustment in the face of “great changes unseen in a century,” i.e., a presumed U.S. decline relative to China, and the growing perception of a “China threat” in the West. According to Lǐ Hǎidōng 李海东 of the China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations, AUKUS demonstrates that “America lacks the strength and stamina to strategically contain China and engage in great power competition in the Western Pacific, so it urgently requires the assistance of dependable allies.”

They believe that the U.S. purported containment policy is struggling to gain traction with the majority of countries that still see China as a strategic partner. “As a result,” concurs Chén Xiǎochén 陈晓晨, director of East China Normal University’s Asia Pacific Research Center, “so-called ‘minilateralism’ has emerged as a key tool for the U.S. to persuade some Western countries to join its Indo-Pacific strategy.” Emphasizing Australia’s key role therein, Chen adds that “the U.S. hopes that Australia will serve as an anti-China ‘yardstick’ and ‘southern anchor’ of the overall ‘Indo-Pacific strategy.’”

Fear of nuclear proliferation 

Chinese Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs in Geneva, Lǐ Sōng 李松, described AUKUS on October 15 as a “textbook case of nuclear proliferation.” Huá Chūnyíng 华春莹, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, further listed five concerns about Australia’s handling of highly enriched uranium.

To be sure, the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) does not prohibit the use of nuclear material for non-explosive military purposes. Furthermore, Australia is not a signatory to the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (Bangkok Treaty), while the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Rarotonga Treaty) does not place any restrictions on nuclear-powered vessels. Russia, India, and China all have nuclear attack submarine fleets in the region.

Other Chinese diplomats and experts, perhaps realizing that AUKUS is not in violation of international law, described it instead as an Australian attempt to “exploit loopholes by playing dirty,” which “tramples on the spirit of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” 

Rhetoric aside, some Chinese experts acknowledge that the Australian nuclear submarines are unlikely to be armed with nuclear weapons, but they believe that their increased endurance, speed, range, and armament with Tomahawk-type cruise missiles included in AUKUS will make them a decisive addition in the geostrategic rivalry with the U.S. 

With Japan at one vertex and India at the other, Australia’s nuclear submarines will allow the Allies to close a “strategic triangle at the second island chain’s southernmost point, shortening the distance for reconnaissance, monitoring, and rapid response against China, as well as achieving long-range hypersonic precision strike capabilities.”

The first and second island chains (U.S. Department of Defense, with triangle added by author)

Beyond the rivalry, Beijing is concerned that Canberra will set a dangerous precedent by becoming the first non-nuclear weapon state to possess nuclear propulsion technology, a concern shared by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) director general, Rafael Grossi. CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily described the deal as “opening a Pandora’s Box.”

Special attention was given to Japan, with which China has fierce historical animosity and a territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. (The hostility is mutual: Japan sees China as the greatest danger to its national security, according to 70% of the respondents in the Munich Security Index.) Now-elected Prime Minister Kishida Fumio 岸田 文雄 welcomed AUKUS in a call with his Australian counterpart, while China’s ambassador to ASEAN has noted with concern that two of the four Liberal Democratic Party candidates for the Japanese premiership considered acquiring nuclear submarines for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. 

Even before AUKUS, Australia was perceived in China as a trailblazer for anti-China behavior, but now it is a whole new ball game. In an interview with a state-run military channel, Major-General (Ret.) Jīn Yīnán 金一南 of the PLA National Defense University warned: “Remember this date; September 15, 2021, is when nuclear proliferation officially began, and the international nuclear order has started to crumble.” Never one to mince words, the raspy-voiced general continued, “It’s well understood that once Australia obtains nuclear-powered assault submarines, it will be susceptible to a nuclear strike.”

Fears of a new Cold War and a clash of civilizations

Blaming the U.S. for having a “Cold War mentality” is the go-to obloquy for China’s Wolf Warrior diplomats. Sure enough, at his address on September 26, marking the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, the head of China’s delegation to the UN, Gěng Shuǎng 耿爽, blamed the members of AUKUS for “sticking to Cold War mentality” and fixating on “forming small cliques.” The claim was parroted by other senior diplomats, on Party-state media, and by reputable scholars

One scholar, in particular, was not convinced by President Biden’s September promise at the UN headquarters that America is not seeking to wage a “new Cold War” with China. Erroneously referring to AUKUS as an “extremely close military alliance,” Wáng Xiǎodōng 王小东, an economist and researcher with the China Youth & Children Research Center in Beijing, cautioned that because it is based on “Anglo-Saxon blood lineage,” it is much closer than the Five Eyes and the Quad. “The sole purpose of this military alliance is to target China.”

A self-described nationalist, Wang delineated in a vlog on his social media account why AUKUS puts China in “a very dangerous position.” Recalling racist remarks by Trump administration officials about a “clash of civilizations” with China, Wang claimed that because the Chinese race is “as far away from the Anglo-Saxon race as possible” and is the sole challenger to its global predominance, “they can’t bear the thought of China’s rise.”

The “clash of civilizations” theory, popularized by Samuel Huntington’s writings at the turn of the century, asserts that future conflicts will occur between cultures or civilizations rather than between nation states. While the official state media condemns the theory, nationalist intellectuals have enthusiastically embraced the concept, with its implicit sense of Han Chinese superiority — some even making a career out of it. The concept is now inextricably linked to Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

In a 2005 interview with Wang, Martin Jacques projected that “the views that Wáng Xiǎodōng 王小东 expresses will surely become far more familiar to western ears as China becomes increasingly powerful economically.” He wasn’t wrong. 

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The country that is always right vs. the country that is never wrong

When Joseph Biden was still vice president, the U.S. had to reassure Beijing that it had broken away from Kennan’s Cold War “containment” policy. And to be fair, while China enjoyed exploiting the “China under siege” narrative to shift responsibility and agency away from China and toward the West, proponents of the narrative remained outliers in Beijing’s strategic thinking.

Since Biden took office, however, similar reiterations have been ringing hollow in Beijing. Under his leadership, the White House has designated China as a strategic rival with which America is competing “to win the twenty-first century,” and has pledged that China will not become the world’s leading country “on his watch.” Initial hopes in China that he would break away from his predecessor’s strategic rivalry framework have been dashed, and he is now regarded as merely a “polite Trump.”

To proponents of the “China’s under threat” narrative, AUKUS is the most conclusive proof yet that the U.S.-led West is hell-bent on containing China’s rise. Official statements by member states that they are guided by “enduring ideals” and “common tradition as maritime democracies” are fundamentally antithetical to the “China Model,” to the point where nuclear proliferation, a new Cold War, and even a “hot war,” and “clash of civilizations” are all viable options.

In China, on the other hand, the alarmist narrative is being baked into the system. It is being trumpeted by diplomats and featured on Party-state media talk shows, and schoolchildren are taught to shun foreign books, languages, and ideas. 

In Xí’s China, all-time box-office hits extol mythical martyrs in the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression” (the Korean War), foreign journalists are harassed or expelled from the country, and military newspapers call for a “people’s war” against foreign spies. It brings to mind a quip from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”.

When intellectuals like General Jīn Yīnán 金一南 threaten Australia with a nuclear holocaust, they constantly fail to mention China’s role in tipping the regional nuclear balance, such as its ongoing rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal in hundreds of new silos and mobile ICBMs, its recent test of nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles, or even President Xí’s festive April commissioning of a nuclear submarine “to manage the South China Sea.”

Without the ability to reflect, they preach that Australia “is the one to blame for current difficulties” in bilateral relations, dismiss international tribunal arbitration on the South China Sea as “waste paper,” and blame Taiwan for having an unprecedented number of PLA jets travel into its Air Defense Identification Zone. 

How do they justify China’s breakneck military modernization, island building, swarming maritime militia, or provocative circling of neighbors with Russian armadas? “Whereas the U.S. security goal is to maintain global hegemony, China’s goal is to achieve national rejuvenation,” answered recently U.S. expert Yuán Péng 袁鹏, president of CICIR, a state-affiliated think tank overseen by the CCP Central Committee.

On both sides of the China-U.S. rivalry, newly appointed ambassadors are Wolf Warriors; erstwhile generals see the other side as an existential threat, while eminent professors warn from their ivory tower of a “new Cold War” that “will likely turn hot”; and “China hands” and “America hands” in the state service publish works in which they commit their respective countries to a “long game” to reshape the global order. More than anything, AUKUS has revealed two countries driven apart by mutual fear, driving them further down a deterministic path away from engagement and into the flames of war.

Tuvia Gering