Foreign Office officials will be having sleepless nights guessing where and when China will respond to Britain’s joining the US-Australia alliance
Britain’s involvement in Aukus – the new security partnership of the US, Australia and the UK, underpinned by a fleet of Australian nuclear submarines to patrol the Indo-Pacific oceans – has provoked rage, ridicule and incredulity.
It also revives memories of British involvement in previous measures to contain or punish China by despatching gunboats; memories which may have faded here but not in China. Palmerston sent the Navy to punish China for its behaviour in seizing consignments of opium from the East India company, leading to the “Opium Wars”. Dentro 1949, the frigate HMS Amethyst was sent up the Yangtze River to protect the British embassy in Nanjing. It ran aground and eventually escaped after suffering heavy casualties from shelling by the Communist army.
On this occasion Britain is a junior party to an agreement, the practical effect of which is to displace an Australian order for conventional French submarines with an order for US nuclear submarines (with Britain being allocated part of the contract).
The strategic context is an attempt by the US and Australian governments to respond to China’s growing military – mainly naval – capability, including a significant submarine fleet. The move is to be seen in conjunction with an embryonic military alliance including Japan and India. The “Quad” meets this week in Washington. It represents an ambition by the Biden administration to spread the responsibility and costs of confronting China among regional coalition partners. And that ambition in turn feeds into the economic, political and military dimensions of growing tension; an issue I pursue in my latest podcast series.
Whatever the context or the underlying aims of Aukus, its launch has been a political disaster. The French are infuriated by what its prime minister calls “duplicity, contempt and lies” in the switching of the contract. France has taken the unusual step of recalling its US and Australian ambassadors (Britain was exempted as it was thought to be of marginal relevance). The German government has issued a warning that the US action threatens the “coherence and unity of the west”. One alliance is strengthened by weakening another: Nato.
Whether the damage is permanent or involves a temporary fit of Gallic temper remains to be seen. There is undoubtedly deep anxiety in Europe that Biden is following the Trump doctrine of “America First” and is seeking confrontation with China which currently poses very little military threat to the US or Australia, let alone Europe. Enquanto isso, the bigger threat of Russia which, unlike China, has a powerful arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons and a recent history of attacking and occupying its neighbours’ territory, is being largely ignored. The episode reinforces President Macron’s case for European “strategic autonomy”.
Americans may not greatly care about European sensitivities, especially the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. But Biden’s popularity at home is also on the slide with approval levels at a new low, matching Trump’s in office. None of this may matter if Biden gets his big spending plans through Congress; but if he doesn’t, his presidency will be in deep trouble which will further erode his falling credibility abroad.
Biden’s reputation for competence has also taken a bad knock. The building of alliances was supposed to be Biden’s strong suit. Yet he has managed to infuriate one of America’s key allies by accident, as effectively as Trump did deliberately. And this is only a few weeks after the debacle of the chaotic and uncoordinated pull-out from Afghanistan.
A further problem with the new alliance is that it highlights the fractures opening up in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia has put itself in the front line, but New Zealand is in a different place, seeking accommodation with China; and there is no love lost in the Arden administration for the abrasively right-wing government of Scott Morrison. Japan has welcomed the new security arrangement, but cynics would say that that is a continuation of the Japanese policy of seeking maximum benefits of economic entanglement with China while getting America to pay for its defence. South Korea is not anxious to pick a fight with China; it has a bigger threat to the north.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are split. Indonesia has been careful to declare neutrality and that probably goes for Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. The US can probably rely on Singapore and also on Vietnam, though the idea of Communist Vietnam as part of an “alliance of democracies” is bit of a stretch.
A bigger problem is that the agreement raises, perhaps unwittingly, the risks of nuclear proliferation, an issue I discussed in this column last week. Nuclear submarines are not the same as nuclear-armed submarines. But there is an expectation, which hasn’t been denied very forcefully, that Australia could be allowed to become a nuclear weapons state by installing nuclear-armed missiles on the new submarines. It is careless, to say the least, for this possibility to be left hanging at a time when Iran is just short of nuclear weapons status and there are half a dozen other states close to a “break-out”.
Then there is the role of the UK. One way of dealing with Britain’s role is with French irony and sarcastic dismissal. But there is no evidence that the Chinese leadership is blessed with a similar sense of humour; they will see that Britain has made a choice. There is a recent history of vindictiveness towards countries as small as Lithuania which have offended Beijing. So there will be “consequences”, as yet unspecified.
To the extent that the British policy can be characterised as a strategy, it is to stick as closely as possible to whoever is in the White House. Being a supportive ally also helps to dissipate some of the ill-will which has been generated by post-Brexit shenanigans over the Irish border and by the Kabul evacuation. Moreover, there is the crock of gold at the bottom of the rainbow in the form of a US-UK trade agreement which is of immense symbolic value to the British government even if its economic benefits are negligible or negative. There were also hopes that “Global Britain” can join the legacy body of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the US left under Trump but now wants to re-join. China has however thrown a spanner in the works by making its own application to join.
Foreign Office officials will be having sleepless nights guessing where and when China will respond to Britain’s joining the US-Australia alliance. One obvious vulnerability is the Cop conference in Glasgow. China is keen to exercise leadership in the climate crisis debate and we can soon expect a Xi “Plan to Save the World” to match President Biden’s. But China could decide that Britain is not the location to come to an agreement, which might be reserved for a more congenial time and place. There is then plenty of scope for retaliation, counterretaliation and counter-counterretaliation – China risks a boycott of the Winter Olympics, por exemplo.
One certainty is that a terminal crisis is looming for the doctrine of “cakeism”. We can join hostile alliances and engage in gunboat diplomacy, or we can coax China to engage on the climate crisis and free trade, but not both. We can have our cake but not eat it.
Vince Cable is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats and secretary of state for business. His book ‘The Chinese Conundrum’will be published on 25 setembro