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BEIJING: China warned on Tuesday that Australia, Britain and the United States were treading a “path of error and danger” after they unveiled a nuclear-powered submarines deal.

Australia announced on Monday it would buy up to five US nuclear-powered submarines, then build a new model with US and British technology under an ambitious plan to bulk up Western muscle across the Asia-Pacific in the face of a rising China.

US President Joe Biden has stressed that Australia, which joined the alliance with Washington and London known as AUKUS 18 months ago, will not be getting nuclear weapons.

However, acquiring submarines powered by nuclear reactors puts Australia in an elite club and at the forefront of US-led efforts to push back against Chinese military expansion.

Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, said: “The latest joint statement from the US, UK and Australia demonstrates that the three countries, for the sake of their own geopolitical interests, completely disregard the concerns of the international communities and are walking further and further down the path of error and danger.”

Wang accused the three Western allies of inciting an arms race, saying the security deal was “a typical case of Cold War mentality”.

The sale of submarines “constitutes a severe nuclear proliferation risk, and violates the aims and objectives of the Non-Proliferation Treaty”, Wang said at a regular news conference in Beijing.

The UN nuclear watchdog said it had to ensure there were no proliferation risks from the deal.

“Ultimately, the Agency must ensure that no proliferation risks will emanate from this project,” International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said.

Moscow, which has sought to shore up its ties with China, also accused the West of fomenting “years of confrontation” in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The Anglo-Saxon world, with the creation of structures like AUKUS and with the advancement of NATO military infrastructures into Asia, is making a serious bet on many years of confrontation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised comments.

Monday’s announcement came at an event at a naval base in San Diego, California, where Biden hosted Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

With a US Virginia-class nuclear submarine moored behind the trio’s podium, Biden said the United States had “safeguarded stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades” and that the submarine alliance would bolster “the prospect of peace for decades to come”.

Albanese said the deal represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability “in all of our history”.

The submarines are expected to be equipped with long-range cruise missiles, offering a potent deterrent.

The Australian government estimates the multi-decade project will cost almost $40 billion in the first 10 years, and create an estimated 20,000 jobs.

Albanese underlined that Australia was now only the second country, after Britain, to be granted access to US naval nuclear secrets.

Three conventionally armed, nuclear-powered Virginia class vessels will be sold “over the course of the 2030s”, with the “possibility of going up to five if that is needed”, said Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

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