Russia Sides With China in Opposition to US-Led AUKUS Submarine Partnership

By Dimitri Simes | November 29, 2021 | 4:47pm EST
The U.S. Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine Virginia.   (Photo by Christina M. Shaw/AFP via Getty Images)
The U.S. Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine Virginia. (Photo by Christina M. Shaw/AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow ( – A top Russian arms control official has called on the U.S., Britain, and Australia to abandon the AUKUS strategic partnership – the latest sign that Moscow and Beijing are converging on the issue.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, warned on Friday that the initiative, which will see the U.S. and U.K. help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, carried “significant risks” for regional stability and nuclear non-proliferation in Asia.

Addressing a press conference in the Austrian capital, Ulyanov charged that there was an “information vacuum” surrounding what kind of fuel would be used in the reactors that will power the submarines.

“If we are talking about highly enriched uranium, which is used in most modern nuclear power plants of nuclear submarines, about two tons of HEU will be outside the regular inspections of the IAEA,” he said.

Ulyanov said in such a case he doubted it would be possible to affirm in the future that all nuclear material on Australia’s territory or under its jurisdiction “remains in peaceful activities.”

“We hope that in the long run common sense will prevail, and after the end of 18 months – which the AUKUS participants themselves took for additional study – they will come to the conclusion that it is necessary to curtail the implementation of the nuclear submarine project, taking into account the opinion of the international community.”

Ulyanov was speaking on the same day the IAEA board of governors – at China’s suggestion – for the first time held dedicated discussions on the AUKUS issue.

China argued that two nuclear weapon states transferring weapons-grade nuclear materials to Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon state, would violate the object and purposes of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The U.S. and Britain announced on September 15 that they would help Australia build at least eight nuclear powered submarines, to help counter what President Biden called “rapidly evolving threats” in the Indo-Pacific region. Although China was not mentioned by name in the AUKUS rollout, Beijing is widely considered to be the main target of the partnership.

China’s foreign ministry immediately denounced the initiative as the product of a “Cold War zero-sum mentality” and claimed it would fuel a new arms race in the region.

In recent weeks, numerous senior Russian officials have argued that the partnership poses a threat not just to Beijing’s security interests, but to Moscow’s as well.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council, told a Russian newspaper last month that AUKUS was “a prototype of the Asian equivalent of NATO.”

“Washington will try to draw other countries into this organization, mainly to pursue anti-Chinese and anti-Russian policies,” he added.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu similarly warned that Washington was “imposing the creation of structures similar to NATO” on the countries of southeast Asia.

Even President Vladimir Putin has spoken against AUKUS, arguing that the planned partnership “undoubtedly undermines regional stability.”

Beyond such statements of solidarity regarding AUKUS, Russia has also moved to strengthen its military partnership with China.

In mid-October, a group of Russian and Chinese warships sailed together around Japan’s main island of Honshu for the first time, prompting expressions of concern from both Japan and the U.S.

On November 19, the South Korean military reported that Russian and Chinese fighter jets had briefly entered the country’s air defense identification zone without notice, forcing Seoul to scramble warplanes to the area.

And last week, the Russian and Chinese defense ministers signed a new military cooperation roadmap that called for “stepping up” strategic military exercises and joint patrols between the two countries.

During a virtual signature ceremony for the agreement, Shoigu accused the U.S. of flying 30 strategic bomber missions near Russia’s borders in the past month.

“Such actions by US strategic bombers pose a threat not only to Russia, but also to China, he said. “In this environment, Russian-Chinese coordination is becoming a stabilizing factor in world affairs.”

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe declared at the event that the two countries had “pulled together like a great mountain” in response to U.S. pressure. “Our friendship is unbreakable,” he said. “Together we oppose U.S. hegemony, the fake U.S. democratic regime and fake multiculturalism, and the manifestations of the new Cold War,” he said.

Some defense analysts believe that closer Russian-Chinese naval cooperation could become one of the biggest “unintended consequences” of the AUKUS deal.

Lyle Goldstein, a researcher at the Defense Priorities think tank and a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College, warned that Moscow and Beijing will likely expand their own joint arms development efforts in response to AUKUS.

“It is within the realm of possibility the Russian Navy will operate decades in the future with Chinese-made aircraft carriers, even as the Chinese Navy navigates all the world’s oceans in the most cutting-edge Russian-made nuclear submarines, while they collaborate to build lethal drones and vertical-launch fighters,” he wrote in a Defense News column last month.

“A semi-permanent marriage between Russia’s military design genius and China’s industrial production acumen on large projects may be the most concerning legacy of the AUKUS deal.”

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Chinese State Premier Li Keqiang are scheduled to hold virtual talks on Tuesday. China’s foreign ministry said that the two heads of government will discuss a broad range of political and economic issues, including on how to ease the global supply chain crisis that was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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