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SAN DIEGO — In 1958, America shared the secret technology which enabled Britain to deploy nuclear-powered submarines for the first time. This week, the two countries joined forces with a third power to sign a new accord which U.K. military top brass say is equally profound.
The AUKUS — Australia, U.K., U.S. — defense pact is a three-way cooperation program which essentially brings the former into the nuclear sub club while extending Britain and America’s reach into a Pacific region rapidly becoming the key global theater for the century to come.
It underlines an almost dizzying switch of focus for the U.K., as officials scramble to reconsider and recalibrate Britain’s place in the world after Brexit.
On Monday, as Sunak was in San Diego, California, to sign the multi-decade, multibillion-pound deal alongside President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia, U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was in the House of Commons to unveil the British government’s updated Integrated Review (IR)— a sweeping defense and foreign policy document setting out overseas priorities for the years ahead.
It came almost two years to the day since the original IR was published — a period in which, three senior political and military officials told POLITICO, much had changed.
One government official who helped draw up the strategy said the original review contained both an optimistic scenario, for a future of international cooperation and collaboration, and a more negative version involving “intensifying inter-state competition.”
“The simple fact is that in the last few years, that more negative version of inter-state competition intensified,” the official said. “And it’s gone even faster than the assessment that we put in the previous IR.”
The most obvious change was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which has put severe strain on Britain’s military resources and contributed to an energy shock felt in every household in the U.K, while also focusing capitals from Warsaw to Washington on the value of NATO.
But China, too, has leapt further up the order of problems to be addressed — and Britain and its allies have determined that the best response, after years of failed bridge-building, is to be proactive in building a defensive alliance.
“We’ve seen growing Chinese authoritarianism and assertiveness overseas,” the same official said. “NATO is acknowledging, adjusting, to the China challenge more than it has ever beforehand.”
Intelligence services in both the U.S. and U.K. agree that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is no longer the logical actor they had become accustomed to, a senior figure involved in setting U.K. foreign policy said. This person described how in the past, for all the prickliness of the relationship, Xi could be counted on to act rationally, which made him relatively straightforward to deal with. But his recent speeches and actions seem more ideological, they said, and he appears more authoritarian at home and assertive abroad.
One of the senior military officials cited above said they anticipated that Chinese subs would likely soon be operating closer to European waters. They cited the melting of ice caps, making the navigation of routes easier, and a more aggressive approach from the current regime as key factors.
And that meant the U.K. could not simply sit out the “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific region which Washington has already begun.
For the Americans, the AUKUS deal means the U.S. can now have a further, powerful presence in the Pacific it would otherwise lack as China continues to grow in power and authority over the years and decades ahead.
Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director at the London-based think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said: “The big strategic dilemma the U.S. has had in terms of fighting a war with China is that the region is an awful long way from America but very close to China. The more the U.S. can forward-base a large part of their forces, the better. It gives them much more operational availability if a war was to start at short notice. From the Australian point of view, this provides them with greater visibility of American guarantee, which they would welcome.”
One American attack sub, USS Asheville, is already operating out of an Australian port, and under the terms of the AUKUS deal the Royal Navy is due to make its first deployment to Australia in 2027.
Over the coming decade, as work begins on a British-designed SSN-AUKUS nuclear sub in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, using American technology and destined for Canberra, it will be customary for patrols of British and American subs to use Australian ports. Personnel from all three navies will be embedded upon one another’s ships as the extensive training required to man a nuclear sub begins.
For Britain, having unmoored from the European Union, drawing closer still to the United States and its allies is suddenly an imperative. AUKUS binds the two nations together, alongside their Australian partner, in a manner perhaps not seen since the Second World War. No wonder officials at the top of both the British government and military see the pact as a major diplomatic coup.
Chalmers said the link-up with the Australians to develop the new generation sub was a smart move: “From the U.K. point of view, it is very hard to buy these very expensive, highly sophisticated platforms without international collaboration … The logic points towards collaboration with other medium-size pals.”
A long way from home
But the plan does have critics. Some question why the U.K. is expending so much money and personnel on a far-away region when there is a major war on its doorstep in Ukraine.
Others doubt Britain has the capacity to fulfil the orders for Australia when its defense industry is already overstretched, and risks a “brain drain” of experts tempted by higher salaries Down Under. With the British Army enduring a cut in numbers some say is unsustainable, the lavish spending on submarines might seem like a luxury the U.K. can ill afford.
Indeed, navy chiefs are pushing for the government to extend the number of British subs from the current seven to as many as 19. It’s a wish list that, given each boat carries a £1.5 billion price tag, one Downing Street official openly laughed at when the idea was floated during Sunak’s trip to San Diego this week.
Defense chiefs insist the high price of membership of AUKUS and engagement in the Pacific region is a necessary one, however, and that alliances and multilateral agreements are the way of the future. One defense official suggested that not forming similar trusted partnerships could ultimately prove China’s downfall.
The official who helped draw up the IR said: “To out-compete and out-cooperate those who want to challenge our core interests, and [deliver] our higher interest in an open, prosperous, stable international order, we are going to have to work more effectively with allies and partners. We’re also going to have to spend more proportion of national resource on defense.”
The senior military official quoted above added: “The Chinese philosophical approach for a number of years now has been that of decoupling. [Beijing believes] only weak states cobble together to form alliances.
“But if these alliances grow in competence and commitment to each other, then that overall effect starts to counter the decoupling strategy. It starts to counter their ability to influence what they want to get done. If the world aligns itself, then actually China will lose the capability debate, because its only resilience is on itself.”
As for Sunak, the prime minister sees last week’s visit to France to meet President Emmanuel Macron followed by his trip to San Diego as exemplars of his vision for Britain’s new place in the world.
Britain may no longer be a part of the EU, but France in particular remains a key partner, particularly on military matters, and in private the PM is scathing about his predecessor Liz Truss’s infamous equivocation during the 2022 Conservative leadership contest over whether or not Paris was a “friend”.
Macron’s bruised feelings at being rejected by Australia in favor of AUKUS appear to have been soothed.
Forging alliances with friendly nations, with the U.K. in lockstep with the United States and sympathetic friends including Japan, Canada and South Korea, while European nations are still hugged close, feels like a good fit for Sunak. Those POLITICO spoke to all cited his pursuit of U.K. membership of a major trans-Pacific trade deal populated by many of the major economies in the region, with China on the outside looking in, as another example of the tilt.
Indeed, as China postures over Taiwan, senior British officials believe countries such as Sri Lanka or South Africa — which may have been tempted by cash investment from Beijing — are beginning to feel that joining these U.S.-led alliances is a less risky step.
The future looks more complicated, and potentially more dangerous, than recent decades have proved. For Britain, having friends bound close by military and geo-diplomatic ties makes that uncertain world seem less daunting.
Cristina Gallardo reported from London.