Australia on Friday shrugged off Chinese anger over its decision to acquire US nuclear-powered submarines and vowed to defend the rule of law in airspace and waters where Beijing has staked multiple hotly contested claims.
US President Joe Biden announced the new Australia-US-Britain defence alliance on Wednesday, extending US nuclear submarine technology to Australia as well as cyber defence, applied artificial intelligence and undersea capabilities.
China's government described the alliance as an "extremely irresponsible" threat to regional stability, questioning Australia's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and warning the Western allies that they risked "shooting themselves in the foot".
China has its own "very substantive programme of nuclear submarine building", Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday in an interview with radio station 2GB.
"They have every right to take decisions in their national interests for their defence arrangements and of course so does Australia and all other countries," he said.
In a series of media interviews, the Australian leader said his government was reacting to changing dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region where territory is increasingly contested and competition is rising.
Australia is "very aware" of China's nuclear submarine capabilities and growing military investment, he said in an interview with Channel Seven television.
"We are interested in ensuring that international waters are always international waters and international skies are international skies, and that the rule of law applies equally in all of these places," he said.
Australia wanted to ensure that were no "no-go zones" in areas governed by international law, he said.
"That's very important whether it is for trade, whether it is for things like undersea cables, for planes and where they can fly. I mean that is the order that we need to preserve. That is what peace and stability provides for and that is what we are seeking to achieve."
- 'The forever partnership' -
China claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in shipping trade passes annually, rejecting competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing has been accused of deploying a range of military hardware including anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles there, and ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the waters to be without basis.
China has also imposed tough economic sanctions on Australian products across a range of sectors.
Those measures are widely seen in Australia as punishment for pushing back against Beijing's operations to impose influence in Australia, rejecting Chinese investment in sensitive areas and publicly calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Morrison said the new defence alliance, announced after more than 18 months of discussions with the United States and Britain, will be permanent.
"It involves a very significant commitment not just today but forever. That is why I refer to it as the forever partnership. It is one that will see Australia kept secure and safe into the future."
Speaking during a visit to Washington for talks with his US counterparts, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton was even more dismissive of the reaction by some Chinese officials and government-backed media, describing it as "counterproductive and immature and frankly embarrassing".
Australia simply wanted to ensure sustained peace and stability in the region, he said in an interview with Sky News Australia.
He said Australia was willing to host more US Marines on rotation through the northern city of Darwin and wanted to see air capability enhanced.