China has responded “irrationally” to the Aukus pact between Australia, the United States and Britain, the defence minister Peter Dutton says.
The conservative Australian minister continues to mount forthright criticism of the Chinese government, accusing it of “bullying” countries that stand up to Beijing.
Dutton on Sunday said the Australian government had formed the Aukus partnership with the US and the UK because it wanted to see “see increased stability and peace in our region”.
“The response by China to that, I think, was irrational,” Dutton told Sky News Australia.
He said it was wrong to suggest Australia was the one fuelling an arms race in the region “when we’re talking about acquiring eight nuclear-powered submarines at a time when China has 355 vessels in its [naval] fleet, going to 400 within the next nine years”.
“And they are producing on a tonnage rate more naval assets every 18 months than what the Royal Australian Navy has in its entire fleet,” Dutton said.
China has sought to portray the Aukus deal as an “Anglo-Saxon clique” and a threat to the nuclear non-proliferation system.
China’s acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, likened Australia to “a naughty guy”, saying it would be branded as a “sabre wielder” rather than a “peace defender” as a result of the plan.
But the concerns are not confined to China, with the Australian government moving to allay Malaysia and Indonesia’s worries that the Aukus deal could add to a regional arms race and pose nuclear non-proliferation issues.
Tensions with Beijing are set to increase, after Australia joined the US and the UK last week in announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in protest over human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.
China’s foreign ministry said those countries would pay a price for their “mistaken acts” and “posturing”. When asked on Sunday about this threat, Dutton said China issues such comments “regularly and not just against Australia”.
The defence minister said China had also “threatened” Lithuania with trade actions in recent weeks, adding: “We see it more and more regularly and it’s unsettling and it’s unnecessary to be honest.”
Dutton – who has been accused of ramping up national security rhetoric for political purposes as a federal election looms – said it was important to “be realistic” about how China’s outlook had “changed quite dramatically” under Xi Jinping’s leadership.
He said the Australian government’s “problem is with the Chinese government, not with the Chinese people”.
He said Australia had “an incredibly successful diaspora community” with more than a million people of Chinese origin “who have made an enormous contribution to our country”.
Dutton attracted controversy last month when he said it would be “inconceivable” that Australia wouldn’t come to Taiwan’s aid if the US defended the democratically governed island against an invasion by China. He denied this amounted to pre-committing Australia to war.
The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, discussed tensions across the Taiwan Strait during a meeting with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in the UK on Saturday.
The US state department said the pair had “reiterated support for a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues without resorting to threats or coercion and emphasised Taiwan’s important contributions to global health development”.
Payne and Blinken met on the sidelines of a G7 foreign and development ministers’ meeting in Liverpool. They also “agreed on the importance of having a Senate-confirmed Ambassador in place in Canberra as soon as possible in light of the scope and scale of shared challenges we face”.
The Biden administration is yet to name an ambassador to Australia but there has been speculation that it may nominate Caroline Kennedy, the former ambassador to Japan and daughter of John F Kennedy.
Amid continued competition for regional influence, the Australian government announced on Sunday it would join with the US and Japan to fund a new undersea telecommunications cable in the Pacific.
The project, estimated to cost up to $A104m, aims to improve internet services in Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia. Payne said such partnerships “meet genuine needs” and “respect sovereignty”.
Regional security will be one of the main topics on the agenda when South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, meets with Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison in Canberra on Monday.