Britain and the United States were struggling to contain an international backlash over a nuclear submarine pact reached with Australia amid concerns that the alliance could provoke China and spark conflict in the Pacific.
Boris Johnson told MPs that the Aukus defense agreement “was not intended to be contradictory” with China. But Beijing accused the three countries of adopting a “cold war mentality” and warned that they would harm its own interests unless it was abandoned.
Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, questioned whether the pact meant Britain could be drawn into war with an increasingly assertive China on Taiwan as Washington demands a greater British presence in the Pacific.
In Washington, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made clear that the administration had chosen to close ranks with Australia in the face of China’s belligerent behavior.
Austin said he had discussed with Australian ministers “China’s destabilizing activities and Beijing’s efforts to coerce and intimidate other countries, contrary to established rules and norms,” adding: “While we seek a constructive relationship aimed at results with [China], we will keep our eyes clear on our vision of Beijing’s efforts to undermine the established international order. “
The fallout followed Wednesday night’s announcement of the Aukus deal, under which the United States and the United Kingdom will share sensitive technology with Australia to allow it to develop its first nuclear-powered submarines. The pact was described by UK national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove as “perhaps the most important capabilities collaboration in the world in the last six decades.”
May asked Johnson in the Commons: “What are the implications of this pact for the position the UK would take in its response if China tries to invade Taiwan?”
In response, the prime minister was careful not to rule anything out. “The UK remains determined to uphold international law and that is the strong advice we would give to our friends around the world, and the strong advice we would give to the government in Beijing,” he said.
Beijing has taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward Taipei, which has long received military support from the United States. Military shows of force are frequent: This month China sent 19 aircraft, including nuclear-capable bombers, to Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone” on the eve of the annual Taipei war games exercises.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the country questioned “Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation” in light of the agreement and accused the three partners of engaging in an “outdated zero-sum mentality. of the cold war “. The spokesperson added: “China will closely monitor the situation.”
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton ignored Beijing’s reaction.
“This is not the first time we have seen different outbursts from China in terms of Australia’s position,” Dutton told reporters in Washington. “We are a proud democracy in our region. We stand with our Indo-Pacific neighbors to ensure lasting peace and this collaboration makes it a safer region. That is the reality and no matter of propaganda can rule out the facts ”.
Johnson later told the Commons that China had misunderstood: “I think it is important for the House to understand that Aukus does not intend to be an adversary of any other power.”
As a result of the pact, Australia will become the seventh nation in the world to own nuclear-powered submarines, matching the capacity that China already has. Submarines can stay submerged for up to five months and are more difficult to detect than conventional diesel equivalents.
Since taking office, US President Joe Biden has been interested in seeking international alliances to bolster a stronger stance toward China, which now has the world’s largest navy. During the summer, NATO declared that China posed a strategic threat for the first time.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at China’s Renmin University, said the deal was “undoubted” to counter China. He added: “China will definitely counter it, but the question is what kind of counterattack would it be.”
British ministers were also forced to placate France, a NATO ally, after it emerged that Australia had canceled a planned A $ 90 million (£ 48 million) upgrade for French-designed diesel submarines. in order to switch to nuclear power in the future.
“It’s really a stab in the back,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The minister said that Paris had been caught off guard because the agreement had not been mentioned in recent discussions with the United States on Indo-Pacific policy. “We were discussing that with the United States recently, and here comes this rupture,” Le Drian said, calling it “a huge breach of trust.” Senior EU officials also complained that they had not been consulted.
In a joint appearance with Australian ministers on Thursday, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken sought to limit the damage to relations with Paris, telling reporters that he and other top US officials have been. They had been in contact with their French counterparts on the run. until the announcement of the Aukus association and immediately after.
“France, in particular, is a vital partner on this and many other issues dating back to previous generations, and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our transatlantic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.”
Standing next to Blinken, Dutton tried to explain Australia’s decision to scrap the French submarine contract and opt for cooperation with the US and UK. He said diesel-powered ships would not give Australia a “regional superiority” that extends into the 2040s.
He said the French nuclear-powered option “was not superior” to the US-UK option, but was vague about why the final decision was made.
Ben Wallace, the UK defense secretary, said on Thursday that he understood France’s disappointment at the loss of a lucrative export deal, but argued that it was prompted “by an Australian change in its capacity requirement”, at least initially. .
“If we all step back, France, Britain and the United States agree on so many things together. We agree on the same rule-based order, we agree on freedom of navigation, we agree to respect human rights, “he added.
Wallace said it was Australia that came to the UK seeking a deal in March, after a secret year-long study program in which it concluded that it wanted to abandon the French update.
Both countries then went to the US Johnson joined Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Biden for a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall in June.
There, the three discussed the pact in principle, although what began as a technology agreement expanded into a broader three-way alliance with plans to share other military technologies, including artificial intelligence.
The submarines will be built in Adelaide, but Australian sources said they expected the nuclear-powered engines, which rely on highly enriched uranium for weapons, would be produced in the US or in the UK, where they are manufactured by Rolls-Royce.
However, the exact manufacturing process has yet to be decided, pending an initial 18-month review. It is also unclear where the Australian reactors will eventually be shut down. In the UK, nuclear powered submarines are decommissioned at the Devonport shipyard near Plymouth and the reactor cores are taken to Sellafield in Cumbria.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism