A top Chinese diplomat has likened Australia to “a naughty guy” over the Aukus nuclear submarine deal, saying it jeopardises Australia’s peace-loving reputation and the Australian people “should be more worried”.
China’s acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, said Australia would be branded as a “sabre wielder” rather than a “peace defender” as a result of the plan to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, which would also affect the nuclear non-proliferation system.
“There’s zero nuclear capacity, technologically, in Australia, that would guarantee you will be trouble free, you will be incident free,” Wang said. “And if anything happened, are the politicians ready to say sorry to people in Melbourne and in Adelaide?”
He also called on Australian politicians to “refrain from doing anything that’s destructive to our relationship” after the defence minister, Peter Dutton, signalled Australia would be likely to participate if the US came to Taiwan’s aid in a conflict with China.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, Wang gave no indication Beijing was about to end the freeze on calls between Chinese and Australian ministers, saying speculation about Australia’s engagement in a military conflict was “not a conducive environment” for high-level talks.
Amid increasing strains in the relationship between Australia and its top trading partner, Wang said he would not be surprised if Canberra decided to cancel a Chinese company’s long-term lease of the Port of Darwin, but asked: “I wonder whether Australia can afford to break another contract?”
Australia cancelled a French contract for 12 diesel-electric submarines in favour of a new security partnership with the US and the UK aimed at acquiring at least eight nuclear-powered submarines – triggering a significant diplomatic backlash from France.
The Morrison government says the decision is driven by the deteriorating security situation in the Indo-Pacific, with the Australian ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, saying the more capable submarines will allow Australia to “project our power further up” from its shores.
Wang said the Australian people should be worried about the impact of Aukus on the “nation’s branding”, given Australia portrayed itself as a supporter of the international system.
“By trying to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine, it certainly has an impact on the ongoing non-proliferation system. So are you going to be a naughty guy?” he asked, with a chuckle at the end.
Wang said people of his age in China saw Australia as a peace lover, “but nowadays people know that a nuclear-powered submarine is designed to launch long-range attack against a target far away”.
“So who are you going to attack? You are no longer a peace lover, a peace defender, you become a sabre wielder in certain form,” he said.
China is rapidly modernising its own military force, and already has the largest navy in the world with a battle force of about 355 ships and submarines, according to a Pentagon report last month. China currently operates 12 nuclear-powered submarines and, like the US, is a nuclear weapons state.
The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, has sought to allay Malaysia and Indonesia’s concerns about Aukus, travelling to south-east Asia earlier this month to say Australia was “one of the world’s strongest proponents of the global non-proliferation regime” and would work with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Payne reassured her south-east Asian counterparts that Aukus would “make us a more capable partner that is better able to contribute to the security and stability of our region”.
But Wang described the Aukus deal among Australia, the US and the UK as an “Anglo-Saxon clique”, saying it “shows that certain people in your country still have a mentality of concentric stratification of people according to their cultural and ethnic background”.
Wang has been serving as the chargé d’affaires – the top ranked diplomat – at the Chinese embassy since the beginning of November, after the former ambassador, Cheng Jingye, returned to Beijing at the end of a five-year posting.
Wang, who was already in Canberra as the deputy head of mission at the embassy, said he was saddened and disappointed at how the relationship had deteriorated over the past five years.
Sitting down for an interview at the ambassador’s residence, Wang blamed “negative policies and actions from Australia against China” that had been implemented in a “ruthless and arbitrary way”.
He cited the banning of Chinese company Huawei from the 5G network in 2018, the cancellation of the Victorian Belt and Road Agreement earlier this year, and increased barriers to foreign investment that had “scared away” Chinese investors.
The Morrison government will soon consider the future of a Chinese company’s 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin, in a move that could further strain the relationship.
Wang said under the existing contract, signed between Landbridge and the Northern Territory government in 2015, the company was planning to expand the capacity of the port.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the [Australian] intelligence and the security apparatus would stretch its hand, again, to a normal business operation,” he said.
He said the Chinese government would respond to any decision once announced, just as it had responded to “all the negative moves” to date.
“But it seems to me that all these responses have fallen on deaf ears, so nobody in the government seems to be listening carefully about what my government have expressed, and even in certain areas it seems the tensions are still going on.”
Australia has accused China of a campaign of “economic coercion” after Beijing imposed tariffs and other trade actions on a range of Australian export sectors over the past 18 months, including coal, barley, wine and seafood.
Wang continued to defend those measures on technical grounds, and said there was “inadequate diplomacy that’s been executed by your government in terms of solving these differences”.
He said Chinese and Australian officials continued to speak to one another, but ministerial talks would require a better “political atmosphere” and the prospect of “concrete results”.
In a more upbeat outlook on the way forward, Wang said China was “still very keen to engage in a very fruitful and constructive dialogue and troubleshooting process to get all these problems solved in the end”.
However, one of the most sensitive issues in the relationship is Taiwan, with Australia raising concerns about an increase in Chinese military pressure against the democratically ruled island of 24 million people, amid Beijing’s long-term goal of unification.
Dutton told the Australian newspaper last week: “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action.”
Responding to Dutton, Wang said Australian politicians should “not to do anything that would lead to an even more gloomy state of our relationship”.
Wang said the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s visit to Taiwan last month was “very unfortunate”. Abbott – who said he travelled in a private capacity – warned that Beijing might lash out against Taiwan soon, and the US and Australia could not stand idly by.
Wang said: “Actually, it is very agonising to see that such a high-level politician would engage in something that doesn’t serve the interests of Australia, because I think it serves the interests of Australia and China to stick to one-China policy and make our relationship as trouble-free as possible.”