There is NATO, there is Five Eyes (the Anglo-Saxon English speaking alliance between Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US); there is the Quadrilateral Security Dialog—the so-called “Quad”—a strategic engagement between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, there is the 1971 Five Powers Defence Arrangements, (Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK).
Now add to the anti Chinese military alliances AUKUS (a trilateral defence partnership between Australia, the UK and the US). This last partnership comes as Australia reneged on a contract with France for submarines. The first objective of AUKUS is the building of nuclear powered submarines by and for Australia, to be followed by the development of other advanced defence systems, including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities.
The Europeans are left out; however they have their own EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific aka isolating China, unveiled on the same day as AUKUS was debated in the Commons.
The Labour Party conference this September passed an emergency motion (70% for, 30% against) condemning the AUKUS agreement. Countries of the Indo-Pacific region, not just China, also condemned it, as we read on the website ‘labouroutlook.org’:
“But of far greater significance, and much less reported, than European opposition is the response inside the Indo Pacific. China, of course, understands the completely hostile character of the pact. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said that the three countries were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.
This response was endorsed by other significant states. On 17th September, Indonesia’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Teuku Faizasyah said: “Indonesia is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”. He added: “Indonesia calls on Australia to maintain its commitment towards regional peace, stability and security in accordance with the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation”. The Treaty is the code of conduct between the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Another ASEAN nation strongly opposed the pact. Malaysian Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, defined AUKUS as a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region”. He added: “As a country within ASEAN, Malaysia holds the principle of maintaining ASEAN as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality”.
Concern to keep the peace in the Pacific led the New Zealand government to oppose the pact. On 16th September, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden stated that Australia’s new nuclear powered submarines would not be allowed into New Zealand’s territorial waters under its 1984 nuclear free policy.”
Back in London, the whole House of Commons agreed that AUKUS was a thoroughly good thing; almost all contributors to the debate said we are under threat from China and at risk because of China, without explaining why or how.
Johnson said the main objective of AUKUS was defending the trade routes with new submarines:
‘While on patrol, they [nuclear powered submarines] keep silent watch over vast expanses of ocean, protecting shipping, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries, and guarding the trade routes on which our livelihoods depend.’
What is the danger facing ‘the trade routes on which our livelihoods depend’? The Chinese are not going to torpedo the container ships that carry the goods they send to Europe and America.
Tory and Labour mix concerns for free trade and international shipping, where China’s increasing strength may have consequences for Britain’s trade and therefore standard of living, and concerns for the Uyghurs, which are of no consequence whatever for Britain. One is a lever for the other, concerns for the Uyghurs are used to justify actions really designed to uphold Britain’s economy. Starmer’s language was particularly incoherent in this respect: Chinese ‘assertiveness’ poses a threat to Britain in human rights, in democracy, and in trade. This is really mixing everything up.
He in particular welcomed the partnership when it was debated in Parliament on 17th September. After the Afghanistan debacle, he felt that the UK influence in the world should get a bit of a boost, not to mention its security: “issues in faraway corners of the globe can quickly turn into threats at home.”
He had questions however when he addressed the Prime Minister: We still need to have trade and diplomatic relations with China, how will that be achieved? what about our relationship with France? Was Europe to be neglected militarily at the expense of the Pacific region? Was Britain, and its regions, to get a fair share of the military contracts resulting from this alliance? The Prime Minister was reassuring on all points.
It was left to Theresa May to ask the crucial question: will this partnership involve the UK into joining in a military attack on China should China invade Taiwan?
The Prime Minister did not answer yes or no, instead he issued a stern warning to China, in the guise of ‘strong advice’. He flatters himself, and the public, by talking about ‘global Britain’ and talking of China as ‘another global power’ as if both countries were on a par. (‘We do not wish to be adversarial towards any other global power, but….’)
To be fair, a Labour MP, Tony Lloyd did ask a similar question to May’s: ‘[The Prime Minister] has described the agreement as being essentially about technological transfer, not about a major commitment of military assets. Can he guarantee that that is where we are going, and that no overstretch will be involved as a result of this agreement?’
Climate change worries should be an incentive for choosing peace over war. One labour MP, Janet Daby, was the only one to see China not as a threat but as a necessary ally. Climate change concerns are obviously world concerns, and in the case of this MP, this was more important than trade competition. Solutions to the climate change crisis should call for world cooperation and peace, but the UK and the US much prefer to prepare for war.
Here is part of the debate:
The Prime Minister (Boris Johnson)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about our friendship with Australia and the United States, and the security of the Indo-Pacific.
Yesterday I joined President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison to create a new trilateral defence partnership between our countries known as AUKUS. Australia has, for the first time, taken the momentous decision to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, and it has asked for our help in achieving this ambition. I am delighted to tell the House that we have agreed to this request and we shall place the UK’s expertise in this field, amassed over decades, at the assistance of our Australian friends. The first task of AUKUS will be an 18-month trilateral collaboration to determine the best way of delivering advanced nuclear submarines for Australia—emphasising, of course, that they will be powered by nuclear reactors, not armed with nuclear weapons, so the nuclear non-proliferation treaty places no prohibition on that work. The House will understand how Australia’s future possession of that capability will help safeguard the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific.
Nuclear submarines are the capital ships of our age, propelled by an effectively inexhaustible source of energy, allowing them to circumnavigate the world without surfacing, deriving oxygen and fresh water from the sea around them. While on patrol, they keep silent watch over vast expanses of ocean, protecting shipping, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries, and guarding the trade routes on which our livelihoods depend.
To design, build, operate and then safely decommission a nuclear submarine ranks among the most complex and technically demanding enterprises yet devised. Only six nations possess nuclear-powered submarines, and to help another country join this tiny circle is a decision of the utmost gravity, requiring perhaps the closest relationship of trust that can exist between sovereign states. I hope that I speak for the House when I say that I have no hesitation about trusting Australia, a fellow maritime democracy, joined to us by blood and history, which stood by Britain through two world wars at immense sacrifice.
Today, the UK and Australia defend the same interests, promote the same values and face the same threats: we are as closely aligned in international policy as any two countries in the world. One of the great prizes of this enterprise is that Australia, the UK and the US will become inseparable partners in a project that will last for decades, creating opportunities for still greater defence and industrial co-operation.
The integrated review of foreign and defence policy described Britain’s renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific, a region that is fast becoming the geopolitical centre of the world, and ever more important for British trade and therefore British jobs and British livelihoods. If there were ever any question about what global Britain’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific would mean in reality, or what capabilities we might offer, this partnership with Australia and the US provides the answer. It amounts to a new pillar of our strategy, demonstrating Britain’s generational commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific and showing exactly how we can help one of our oldest friends to preserve regional stability. It comes after the
UK’s success in becoming a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and our application to join the trans-Pacific free trade area.
At the same time, this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands, reinforcing our industrial base and our national scientific expertise, exemplified by the British companies participating in this week’s Defence and Security Equipment International event.
A nuclear submarine programme exists within a different realm of engineering from any other marine project, requiring a mastery of disciplines ranging from propulsion to acoustics. In these fields and many others, we will have a new opportunity to strengthen Britain’s position as a science and technology superpower, and by generating economies of scale, this project could reduce the cost of the next generation of nuclear submarines for the Royal Navy, helping us to renew our own capabilities.
While our partnership will begin with nuclear-powered submarines, now that we have created AUKUS, we expect to accelerate the development of other advanced defence systems, including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities. This partnership will open a new chapter in Britain’s friendship with our closest allies, help to safeguard the security of the Indo-Pacific, create jobs at home and reinforce our country’s place at the leading edge of technology. I commend this statement to the House.
Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement. The recent events in Afghanistan show us how precarious international stability can be. New challenges can emerge and issues in faraway corners of the globe can quickly turn into threats at home, so Labour welcomes increased co-operation with our allies. Australia and America are two of our closest security partners. Sharing resources and intelligence with them and enhancing capabilities makes them safer, makes Britain safer, and makes the world safer.
The lesson of the past few weeks is that Britain must look after our most important relationships, or our influence and security quickly decline. Labour welcomes this announcement, but may I ask the Prime Minister to outline in a bit more detail what the agreement means in practice? The strategic review identified China as a “systemic competitor”. China’s assertiveness does pose risks to UK interests in a secure Pacific region, in stable trading environments and in democracy and human rights. We need to deal with those risks, defend our values and defend our interests, but the same review also rightly stated that the UK must maintain a commercial relationship with China, and we must work with them on the defining global issues of the day, such as climate change and pandemic preparedness. Without diplomatic strategy and skill, those goals will come into conflict. So what plan does the Prime Minister have to ensure that this new arrangement increases, rather than decreases our ability to influence China?
In order to protect our security and interests, we also need to look after our broader alliances. NATO remains our most important strategic alliance. It is also the most successful, having delivered peace and security in Europe for three quarters of a century. Whatever the merits of an Indo-Pacific tilt, maintaining security in Europe must remain our primary objective. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that the arrangement will not see resources redirected from Europe and the high north to the Pacific? Will he also guarantee that the arrangement will strengthen rather than weaken the NATO alliance, including our indispensable bilateral relationship with France? We are also in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangements with Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the US, which is vital to our security. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that this new trilateral arrangement will not weaken our intelligence capabilities by producing a two-tier Five Eyes operation?
Finally, the arrangement clearly brings potential economic opportunities for Britain. We need the well-paid, high-skilled jobs that the defence industry provides in every corner of Britain. The Prime Minister said that the project will create hundreds of skilled jobs. Will he give more detail on what he has done to ensure that Britain gets its fair share of any contracts that come out of the arrangements? What will he do to ensure that no region or nation in Britain misses out on any job opportunities that the arrangement may bring?
Mrs Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con)
My right hon. Friend said yesterday that this partnership has
“the aim of working hand in glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”
What are the implications of this pact for the stance and response the United Kingdom would take should China attempt to invade Taiwan?
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 we would give to the Government in Beijing.
Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
It is important that we maintain a diplomatic dialogue with China. Without it, solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, will not be achievable. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what is being done to increase our influence with China, and what impact this alliance might have on COP26 negotiations later in the year?
Obviously we have an interest in maintaining a peaceful region in the Indo-Pacific, so I welcome this, but will the Prime Minister make something clear? He has described the agreement as being essentially about technological transfer, not about a major commitment of military assets. Can he guarantee that that is where we are going, and that no overstretch will be involved as a result of this agreement?
Yes, of course, although I remind the House that the carrier strike group is out there expressing British influence—hard power and soft power—8,000 miles away, which is something that very few other countries can do.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. He will know that Northern Ireland plays an integral part in the procurement and manufacture of defence products; we have the highest technical and scientific manufacturers. We wish to be part of this move, and I know the Prime Minister wishes Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, better together, but we need to be assured. Will he tell us today in the Chamber that Northern Ireland will play its part?
Of course Northern Ireland will play its part, not least in the shipbuilding strategy that will follow after the spending review. I should have made more of that. I am delighted to say that Harland and Wolff has, as I understand it, just taken on another 1,000 apprentices for the first time in a very long time to get ready for exactly that strategy.
© UK Parliament 2021