Boris Johnson has insisted Britain’s new defence pact with the United States and Australia is not intended as an “adversarial” move against China.
In a ground-breaking agreement, dubbed Aukus, the three allies agreed to co-operate on the development for the first time of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy.
The move, widely interpreted as an attempt to check China’s growing military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, was swiftly condemned by Beijing as a “geopolitical gaming tool”.
But in a Commons statement, the Prime Minister said that, while the agreement to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia represented a “huge increase” in the levels of trust between the three countries, it was not “revolutionary”.
“Aukus is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power,” he said.
“It merely reflects the close relationship that we have with the United States and with Australia, the shared values that we have and the sheer level of trust between us that enables us to go to this extraordinary extent of sharing nuclear technology in the way that we are proposing to do.
“It is true that that this is a huge increase in the levels of trust between the UK, the US and Australia.
“It is a fantastic defence technology partnership that we are building.
“But it is not actually revolutionary.”
The first initiative under #AUKUS is the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines for the @Australian_Navy. This will allow @DeptDefence to meet its mission to protect Australia and its national interests, and that of our regional friends, into the future. #AUKUS pic.twitter.com/CYF05qJqPZ
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) September 15, 2021
Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May highlighted one of the potential flashpoints in the region, questioning how the Aukus pact will cause the UK to respond should China attempt to invade Taiwan.
The Conservative former prime minister asked Mr Johnson: “What are the implications of this pact for the stance that would be taken by the United Kingdom in its response should China attempt to invade Taiwan?”
Mr Johnson replied: “The United Kingdom remains determined to defend international law and that is the strong advice we would give to our friends across the world, and the strong advice that we would give to the government in Beijing.”
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the move “seriously undermined regional peace and stability” while casting doubt on Australia’s commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
“The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the US and the UK proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards.
“This is extremely irresponsible,” he said.
He said the three allies needed to abandon their “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality” otherwise they would “only end up shooting themselves in the foot”.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace insisted the Chinese were “wrong” to see the agreement as an attempt to engage in a new cold war.
However, he acknowledged that China’s military expansion – and its involvement in a series of disputes with neighbouring nations over navigation rights in the South China Sea – inevitably led to a “reaction” elsewhere.
“China has launched on a huge investment in its military and its surface fleet and aircraft. It is probably one of the largest armed forces on the planet,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“China is obviously engaged in a number of disputes around freedom of navigation. That just causes a reaction elsewhere.”
The pact was announced in a joint statement on Wednesday by Mr Johnson, US president Joe Biden and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison.
Mr Johnson said they would work “hand-in-glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific”.
At the same time he said the agreement would deliver hundreds of highly skilled jobs to Scotland and parts of the north of England and the Midlands.
The move to nuclear-powered – although not nuclear-armed – vessels will give the Australian navy the ability to operate undetected for longer periods underwater.
However, it is a blow to France which had a contract with Canberra to supply a new fleet of conventional diesel-electric submarines which has now been scrapped.
In a joint statement, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and armed forces minister Florence Parly condemned the move as contrary to “the letter and spirit of the co-operation” between France and Australia.
They said the US decision to exclude a European ally and partner from the agreement with Australia “signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret”.
Mr Wallace acknowledged French “frustration” over the agreement but insisted that Britain had not sought to to disrupt Paris’s relationship with Australia.
The initial scoping phase for the submarines is expected to take 18 months, with UK officials predicting the programme will “create hundreds of highly skilled scientific and engineering roles” across the country, as well as driving investment in high-tech sectors.
At a press conference in Canberra, Mr Morrison said it was undecided if Australia would purchase British-built BAE Systems Astute class submarines or the Virginia class vessels constructed in the US.
It comes after the Government’s integrated review of security and foreign policy earlier this year outlined plans for a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific.
The Royal Navy carrier strike group – led by HMS Queen Elizabeth with US support – is currently being deployed in the region as a sign of the new priority it is being given.